State of our hoops: At least Georgia State looks good

Tom Crean shares a teachable moment with the Bulldogs during exhibition victory over West Georgia.
Tom Crean shares a teachable moment with the Bulldogs during exhibition victory over West Georgia.

The college basketball season begins this week in earnest, not that we around here would much notice. Georgia State, which made the NCAA tournament in 2015 and 2018, was the unanimous choice of the Sun Belt head coaches to repeat as conference champs, which means, among other things, that Ron Hunter voted for his team. Elsewhere, it’s business as usual, and business hasn’t been booming.

ESPN, CBS Sports and Sports Illustrated ranked Division I teams from 1 through 353. ESPN had Georgia 73rd, Georgia State 91st, Georgia Tech 109th and Kennesaw State 293rd. CBS had GSU 93rd, Georgia 107th, Tech 121st and Kennesaw 313th. SI had GSU 86th, Georgia 97th, Tech 127th and KSU 335th.

Georgia, under new management, was picked by the assembled SEC media to finish 13th in a 14-team league. Tech, entering Year 3 under Josh Pastner, was tabbed by conference seers to finish 13th in the 15-team ACC. The lack of enthusiasm for the Bulldogs is understandable: In March, Mark Fox was fired after nine seasons and no NCAA tournament victories; Tom Crean, his successor, is starting over. Tech’s issues are more problematic.

Remember when Tech folks were saying – Pastner, by way of driving down expectations, took pains to mention it – that his first team mightn’t win 10 games? (It wound up winning 21 and playing for the NIT title.) Some of those folks are again wondering if 10 isn’t again the un-magical number. The loss of Josh Okogie, who exited for the NBA after his sophomore season, dealt the Yellow Jackets, who went 13-19 last season, an abject reversal.

Two weeks ago, Tech was handed another. Marcus Watson, a 4-star shooting guard from Buford, committed to Oklahoma State over Tech. (The early signing period begins Nov. 14.) The reason Mike Bobinski hired Pastner away from Memphis was in the hope that he would recruit Atlanta/Georgia. Okogie, from Shiloh High, was a Brian Gregory recruit who stayed after that coach was cashiered.

Tech has five Georgians on its roster. Two came as walk-ons. James Banks III transferred from Texas, Shembari Phillips from Tennessee. Evan Cole, from Cumming, was a 3-star recruit. On the job since April 2016, Pastner has yet to gain in-state traction. If he doesn’t soon, he won’t be on the job much longer.

Crean’s story is different. He’s new, and he’s from the Midwest – apprenticed at Michigan State, coached Marquette and Indiana. Even in the cutthroat world of college recruiting, this area can be especially perilous. Of Georgia’s two commitments, neither is from in-state. Both, however, are 4-stars from the South: Jaykwon Walton of Montgomery, Ala., and Toumani Camara of Hollywood, Fla. That’s a start.

Per 247 Sports, Georgia's class ranks 31st nationally. We note that the classes ranked first, ninth, 10th and 11th feature Georgians. No. 1 USC includes Kyle Sturdivant of Norcoss among its pledges. Auburn is ninth – insert snide line about Bruce Pearl here – with three more Georgia commitments, including Isaac Okoro of McEachern, the state's top-rated player. No. 10 Xavier has 4-star Daniel Ramsey of Norcross; the Musketeers' staff now includes Jonas Hayes, whom Crean wanted to keep in Athens. No. 11 is Oklahoma State.

The player who was supposed to be the star of Georgia’s 2019 signing class started Friday’s exhibition for the nation’s No. 2 team in Rupp Arena. Ashton Hagans, a 5-star junior, committed to the Bulldogs in December. He would have been Fox’s biggest signee since Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in 2011. From Newton High in Covington, Hagans is the cousin of Trey Thompkins, the best player on the Bulldogs’ 2011 NCAA tournament team, and he bonded with both Fox and Hayes.

Come February, with rumors swirling that Fox was a goner, Hagans recanted. In April he declared himself for Kentucky. In June he announced he was reclassifying, which means skipping his senior year. Had Crean had Hagans in this Year 1, the new man would have had a foundation. Instead Hagans is part of another overstuffed freshman class – Kentucky observers rave about his on-the-ball defense, though he has yet to score much – at a place where a crowd of 20,095 gathered for a game that didn’t count on the eve of the Wildcats’ biggest football day since 1951.

By now, even faithful readers will have had their patience tested. I’ve been pounding the table, as we said in high school debating, about Georgia programs needing to keep Georgians in Georgia since … well, not quite 1951, but close. (FYI, the center on Kentucky’s 1951 NCAA champions was Bill Spivey, who played high school ball in Warner Robins.) It will be the same for Crean as was for Fox and Gregory and is for Pastner: If you can’t make hay in this state, you can’t win big.

The fallout from the Feds’ investigation and the first round of convictions in New York remind us that recruiting is both cesspool and bloodsport. That’s no excuse, though. Lots of good players hail from this state, and yet the last time Tech or Georgia won an NCAA tournament game was in March 2010. The Jackets were led by Derrick Favors of South Atlanta High. He’d been the nation’s No. 1 recruit. Here endeth the lesson.

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