Come April, the road will end here. The Final Four will make its fifth Atlanta stop in a third Atlanta arena. Previous incarnations: The Omni in 1977 and the Georgia Dome in 2002, 2007 and 2013. The winners were Marquette in Al McGuire’s tearful farewell; Maryland as coached by the madman Gary Williams; Florida in the second of its back-to-back conquests, and Louisville with guard Kevin Ware of Conyers watching on crutches after breaking his leg. This being college basketball, the Cardinals’ happy title has been vacated.
Hoops season begins this week. We know already that a team that plays 2-1/2 miles from Mercedes-Benz Stadium has no chance of getting there in April. Georgia Tech was slapped by the NCAA with a postseason ban in part for a violation involving the second-biggest in-state recruit of the past decade — Wendell Carter of Pace Academy, who signed with Duke — and a Tech alum who led the Yellow Jackets to the 2004 Final Four, meaning Jarrett Jack. (Also involved: a strip club.)
This will mark a decade without an NCAA appearance for Tech, which made it 10 times under Bobby Cremins and five under Paul Hewitt. Indeed, the absence of Georgia schools from the Big Dance has become a leitmotif — fancy word for belabored point — of this space. The three most recent NCAA games involving a local have involved, in order, Georgia State in the 2015 second round, Georgia State in the 2018 first round and Georgia State in the 2019 first round.
Ron Hunter, the coach who became a March Madness meme by falling from his rolling chair after son R.J. hit the game-winner against Baylor in 2015, has taken his talents to NOLA to coach Tulane. His replacement is Rob Lanier, recently Rick Barnes’ assistant at Tennessee. (Could be wrong, but didn’t Georgia State and Tennessee play a notable game in another sport recently?) Under Hunter, the Panthers won the Sun Belt three times in five years. Lanier’s first team is picked to finish sixth in the 12-team league.
Drive a half-hour up I-75 — that’s in good traffic, which there seldom is — from Mercedes-Benz Stadium and you’ll arrive at the Kennesaw State Convocation Center, site of one of the most remarkable games ever. On Nov. 15, 2010, the KSU Owls beat Georgia Tech, which was coming off an NCAA tournament season, by 17 points. Since that manic Monday, KSU is 69-208 under four different coaches. Under new coach Amir Abdur-Rahim, whose brother Shareef ranks among the finest high schoolers in Georgia annals, the Owls are picked to finish next-to-last in the Atlantic Sun.
Shareef Abdur-Rahim of Wheeler spurned Tech and Cremins to spend one year at California. That would become a recurring theme. This state generated many big names, few of whom deigned to stick around. You know who they were, and if you don’t … well, there’s Google. I’m tired of typing the list. Here, however, is where this November rundown differs from past installments. The state school in Athens is about to embark on a season that could amount to something, and its primary driver will be a 5-star who stayed home.
Three of the five names on the preseason All-SEC first team are Georgians. Ashton Hagans of Covington’s Newton County High plays for Kentucky, Reggie Perry of Thomasville for Mississippi State. That we’d come to expect. What we hadn’t: Anthony Edwards of Atlanta’s Holy Spirit Prep is the third name, and he’s a Georgia Bulldog. He won’t be for long – he’s projected as the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NBA draft – but he’s there now.
The media assembled in Birmingham last month tabbed Georgia to finish ninth in the 14-team SEC, which sounds low and probably is. The Bulldogs haven’t won an NCAA tournament game since 2002 — that was voided due to post-Harrick sanctions — and haven’t made the Dance since 2015. But Tom Crean, about to enter Year 2 as coach, got what he needed from Year 1. He landed Edwards, known as Ant Man. In this sport, one big-timer can have a superhero-type effect.
Georgia and Crean will be disappointed if this season doesn’t produce an NCAA bid. (Though there’s precedent for teams with a No. 1 overall pick missing out — Ben Simmons and LSU in 2016, Markelle Fultz and Washington in 2017.) The SEC is strong, yes: Kentucky and Florida are ranked among the top six in the Associated Press poll; Auburn, coming off a Final Four, is No. 24. But this, we say again, is basketball. There’s a reason recruiting is so vicious. One player really can make a difference.
For Georgia colleges, in-state recruits have too often left their marks on out-of-state campuses. Auburn wouldn’t have crashed the Final Four without Jared Harper of Pebblebrook and Bryce Brown of Tucker and Chuma Okeke of Westlake. Georgia and Edwards have a chance to change a long-standing narrative that has stood way too long.
This isn’t to suggest that a teenager who played high school games in a smallish gym nine miles from Mercedes-Benz Stadium will lead the Bulldogs to the building with the retractable roof five months hence. It will, however, be fun to see Ant Man try.
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