UGA has cratered, but Crean is still high on Edwards

On Saturday, Georgia’s Tom Crean removed Anthony Edwards with 10:03 remaining and the Bulldogs leading Texas A&M 48-46. Before the player could take a seat, his coach approached him. SEC Network cameras would catch Crean and Edwards involved in two more rounds of conversation, the former doing most of the talking.

Edwards re-entered with 2:12 remaining — he'd spent nearly a minute waiting at the scorer's table — and his team down 64-63. Over the final 2:12, he took and missed a 3-pointer, his first/last shot of the second half. He grabbed a rebound. He should have been credited with a steal. A&M, which trailed by nine at halftime, won 74-69.

The Bulldogs are 12-13, 2-10 in SEC play. They’ve lost eight of nine, the latest defeat coming on a day when the presumptive No. 1 pick in the June draft worked two of the final 10 minutes, which made us wonder: Had this massively disappointing season driven a wedge between a coach and what was supposed to be a program-changing recruit?

No, Crean said. On Monday, he reaffirmed what he has said all season — that Edwards “has been a very willing learner” — and deemed those final 10 minutes in College Station a function of reality. Edwards had been fighting the flu for more than a week and, even though he worked 28 minutes Saturday, he wasn’t fully fit.

Crean: “He didn’t have his normal sense of energy. Being sick messed up a lot of stuff, messed up his eating. We tried to get more food in him before the game, but he didn’t have any sense of his normalcy. So we just tried to get him through it. That’s what you do. It doesn’t behoove us not to have him on the floor. There was never any intention of him not going back (into the game). It was just, ‘What can he do?’ ”

On Feb. 11, 2019, Edwards — regarded as the nation's top recruit — announced his intention to sign with Georgia. The moment he stepped on campus, he became the highest-profile Bulldog basketballer since Dominique Wilkins, who enrolled in 1979. Folks were excited that Ant Man, as he's known, was among them, even though everyone knew he wouldn't stay long. He was the classic one-and-done, and everyone seemed fine with that.

Last year’s Bulldogs, Crean’s first team since taking over for Mark Fox, went 11-21, 2-16 against SEC competition. A program that hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 2002 was desperate for traction. Edwards seemed to offer that. On that day a year ago, Winfred Jordan, who’d coached Edwards for the AAU Atlanta Xpress, said: “He could have gone to a blueblood (program), but he needed this as development.”

Asked Sunday about Edwards’ time as a Bulldog, Jordan said: “A lot of it’s a lack of maturity. You go back to the old ways: We had a chance to coach a kid for three or four years. It’s hard to coach a kid for a couple of months and build the kind of relationship and bond and respect that’s due upon you as being a professional. I wouldn’t say a lot of that is on Crean. ... Today, the monetary thing, dealing with family and friends around you: ‘(You’ll) be gone in months and you don’t have to listen to this and don’t have to listen to that’ — all of that hurts the kid.”

Might Edwards be wondering if he’d have been better off at Florida State or Kentucky or Duke or Kansas, other schools he considered?

Jordan: “This is one thing for sure: He would not have had the opportunity to put up as many shots as he’s put up at UGA and do the things he’s done to be staying the No. 1 pick in the draft. You’ve got to take the good with the bad. He probably does think those things. Why wouldn’t he? But I think we’ve also got to be a little realistic here: Would he still be the No. 1 pick in the draft?”

Then: “Is it a hard situation — me, watching them lose? It’s hard. But you hope. People learn from situations. You hope that Anthony learns something; you hope Tom learns something. Maybe Tom can’t take the one-and-done kids. The kind of coach he is, he’s more a development guy. If you’ve only got a kid eight months, there’s nothing you can really teach him.”

For the record, Crean believes Edwards has learned much, saying: “He’s a very young 18-year old; he should be a high school senior.” (Edwards reclassified while at Holy Spirit Prep.) “We’re trying to speed up the process.”

Then: “When you have seven new scholarship freshmen, you have no idea what you’re going to get. You really don’t understand what the process is until you go through it. When you’re this young, your margin for error is not that high. You’ve got to have a lot of things go right. We’ve had big leads and couldn’t hold them. We couldn’t close off the dribble and we didn’t shoot well. We lost Nicolas Claxton (who left for the NBA after his sophomore season). We weren’t built to lose a guy like that. We don’t have size matchups. We can’t just throw it inside and get a basket.”

As an individual, Edwards has essentially been as good as advertised. He averages 19 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists. He also has, as Jordan noted, taken 123 more shots than any other Bulldog. (He leads the SEC in that category.) Maybe that’s why the happiest one-and-done experiences come in clusters. At Duke or Kentucky, you’ll never be the only hot recruit, so you’ll never feel you’re the only player capable of winning a game.

Asked if this season would deter him from pursuing other one-and-dones, Crean said: “No, not at all. I just hope we’d have older guys around him.”

Then, of Edwards: “He’s learning so much. It’s the age. They just don’t know. They just don’t know that they don’t know. We’ve got good kids. They just haven’t been through college basketball before. Anthony has made so many strides. I’ll give you an example: Friday’s practice didn’t start out very well for him, and then he turns it up. He’s learning to take it to another level. Everything he learns at the college level is for the first time, and he’s getting everybody’s best shot times two and three. They’re all trying to stop him.”

That said, nobody expected a team with the nation’s top recruit to be in the position of having to win the SEC tournament to crack the NCAA field. This isn’t what anybody had in mind, the Ant Man included. On the day he told the world he’d sign with Georgia, Edwards was asked what he foresaw for his freshman season. “National championship,” he said.