Georgia basketball A.A. (After Antman) a group effort

Like everything else, Saturday night at The Steg is a whole lot different in late 2020. And it’s not only because 85% of the seats are covered up in white Bulldog placards, which create even less of a hum than usual for Georgia basketball. A paper audience just can’t taunt an opponent for shooting an air ball like the real thing.

Missing also from the Bulldogs floor is that lone personality upon which to focus. That simple, single curiosity that makes an often tragically overlooked game here so much easier to follow. Why learn all the constellations when a single star is all you really care to know?

At least last season there was Anthony Edwards, who passed through Athens for a shave and a haircut before going first in the NBA draft. No one has ever made a 16-16 season — just five of those wins within the SEC — more intriguing. It was just so rare and different for Georgia to have such an oft-discussed figure on the roster. What next, would the Bulldogs put Michelangelo’s David in the paint?

That is the great recalibration going on here as 2020 hands off, thank the heavens, to ’21. There ain’t no Ant at this picnic anymore. Georgia basketball is more the collective noun again, the committee as opposed to The One. There are many more names to learn and many more in-game options to ponder if you are going to grasp the theme of this season.

So, Saturday night at Stegeman, the Bulldogs trailed little Samford for most the night before taking their first lead in the game’s final 75 seconds. They scrapped and scrambled and passed around the responsibility to score just enough to beat Samford 79-75, five guys scoring in double figures.

That’s how the post-Edwards-ian era must go, according to Georgia coach Tom Crean.

“Our guys are finding ways to adjust and that’s really, really important,” he said later that night. “We don’t have that one guy that you know on any given night is going to go out there and get you 20, 25, 30. It’s got to come more collectively. We had five guys in double figures tonight. We found a way to rebound. We got to the foul line. That’s how the team’s got to be built.”

The modest win was another in a series for the Bulldogs, whose 5-0 start against middling competition represents their best beginning this century.

What that means when the opposition picks up significantly — beginning next weekend against Cincinnati and then bleeding into the conference schedule by the end of the month, virus permitting — is uncertain. Probably little. Although Crean is not going to throw back any of the Ws, regardless of how small they are. “Any season, especially a season like this, just find a way to win a game,” he said. “Don’t give in. Don’t give up. Don’t panic. You just keep coming.”

Even though Crean didn’t begin and end all recruiting at Edwards — he actually did sign others with multiple stars beside their names — nobody is picking the Bulldogs to do much in the SEC. Crean is 7-29 in the conference in his two seasons at Georgia. His charge is to win more than 20% of his games within the SEC this year without a singular talent like Edwards as well as his second-leading scorer in 2019-20, Rayshaun Hammonds, thus far an Indiana Pacer.

Crean’s recipe will be to mix some savvy that grad transfers like Justin Kier and Andrew Garcia and P.J. Horne bring with them along with some assumed maturing from recruits who stuck around another year, like Sahvir Wheeler and Toumani Camara (the sophomore forward, the team’s leading rebounder, was out of Saturday’s game).

Wheeler is the guard who drives Crean’s careening style of offense. In his hands, the up-tempo attack can visit both sides of that line between fast and reckless. When he keeps it on the road, the 5-10 sophomore can play quite large.

Against better, stouter teams, it is not immediately clear where the big points or the big rebounds will come from for Georgia. If they are to come at all. Nevertheless, one of those transfers, Kier, a three-year starter from Georgia Mason who went for a team-high 18 points Saturday, said, “I think this team can be really special.”

Added Wheeler, hinting that the Bulldogs will develop a more well-rounded personality in the absence of Edwards, “This group of guys, we know what it takes to win. Last year we were a little defiant. I think this year we’ve really bought in to what Coach Crean and his staff says. And having the guys who are experienced, they come in with a learning attitude, a winning attitude. Us just adopting that and putting it together is really helping us this year.”

Just because they are 5-0 now doesn’t make these Bulldogs any less an enigma. The real discovery process has yet to begin. And as opposed to a season ago, if you care to follow this team, to really understand it, you’re just going to have to work a little harder.