AD Josh Brooks sees positives for Georgia hoops under Tom Crean

VIDEO: Tom Crean trying to address Georgia’s second-half collapses

VIDEO: Tom Crean trying to address Georgia’s second-half collapses

ATHENS – For those wondering, Josh Brooks likes what he has seen so far from Georgia’s Tom Crean and remains excited about the Bulldogs’ potential under the third-year basketball coach.

Call it a “vote of confidence,” if you will, but Brooks expressed nothing but praise, support and empathy when asked Tuesday to evaluate the program.

“I’m always evaluating everything, but I look for the positives, and I see the positives,” Brooks said in a wide-ranging, exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday. “I see the progress we made in a challenging year. We’ve taken steps in each year and progressed, and I’ve got confidence in the results we’re seeing.”

The interview with Brooks was requested weeks ago. But if anything has been learned about Georgia’s new athletic director in the first 100 days of his tenure, it’s that he is nothing if not methodical and deliberate.

And so it has gone with his evaluation of men’s basketball. Brooks said he already had met with Crean and discussed what went wrong, what went right and what his plan is going forward.

In a nutshell, Brooks is satisfied with all he’s seen and heard. That includes the rash of transfers that have forced Crean essentially to rebuild his roster for a fourth consecutive season.

For those keeping count – and Brooks clearly is -- that’s five players who have left Georgia’s team since the opening of the 2020-21 season and 12 in Crean’s three seasons. Among those to decide to relocate were starters Toumani Camara, who has since committed to Dayton, and Tye Fagan, who will play for Ole Miss next season.

Conversely, Georgia has had four players transfer in, including Jabri Abdur-Rahim from Virginia and 3-point shooting specialist Noah Baumann from Southern Cal. Meanwhile, the spring signing period for winter sports begins Wednesday with the Bulldogs still holding two scholarships.

The expectation, at least inside the program, is Georgia should be better next season -- again.

“Everyone sees it locally and thinks it’s an isolated issue and goes, ‘Wow, what’s going on?’” Brooks said of all the transfers. “But once you look at it and you look at the numbers, you realize we’re up to almost 30% of all Division I men’s basketball players in the portal right now. In the SEC alone, it’s just under four per team on average. So, it’s not just a local issue, it’s a national issue and that gives you some perspective.”

He’s not lying. Roster attrition is rampant throughout the SEC. Tennessee’s ballyhooed, top-5 recruiting class of 2020 is completely gone. The Volunteers have lost seven either to the portal or the NBA draft. The number is six at Auburn and Florida and eight at South Carolina.

“It’s the new normal, and you just have to embrace it,” Crean told the AJC’s Mark Bradley on Monday.

Brooks and Georgia definitely are embracing it. He believes the Bulldogs can flourish within the transitive state that college basketball is at the moment.

“In some ways I think it’s an advantage for us,” Brooks said. “When you think about a kid who’s looking to transfer, a lot of times, especially when they’re heading into that last year or maybe have two years of eligibility left, they’re looking for someone who can develop them and get them ready for the next level. Well, I’ve got a head coach who’s got a proven track record for developing players for the next level, whether it’s truly high-end guys like Dwyane Wade or Victor Oladipo or Anthony Edwards or somebody like Nic Claxton, who he developed in one year, or Cody Zoeller at Indiana.

“So, (Crean) has a long, rich tradition of developing guys, and I think that plays to our advantage. People want to come here and get that.”

Indeed, two of the transfers coming in are Georgia products (Braelen Bridges of McDonough and Jailyn Ingram of Madison) who went out of state to play college ball and now are returning as graduate transfers.

Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, they missed on some of the best in that regard. Walker Kessler, a 7-foot-1 center from Fairburn and the son of UGA letterman Chad Kessler, went to Auburn from North Carolina; and Florida scooped up Charleston Southern’s hot-scoring guard Phlandrous Fleming, who actually hails from Athens.

So victories in the transfer portal have become as important as those in recruiting and on the court.

As for what has been happening on the court, Brooks points to progress on that front as well. Georgia’s record under Crean has shown incremental improvement each season. The Bulldogs have gone from 11-21 overall with two SEC victories in Year 1, to 16-16 and 5-13 in a pandemic-shortened second season, to 14-12 and 7-11 this past season.

That remains well short of Crean’s self-stated goal of contending for the NCAA Tournament every year, but it does represent advancement.

That’s about par for coaches who have taken over Georgia’s basketball program over the years. Crean’s 41 wins and no postseason in three seasons is better than Dennis Felton’s 39 and none in three seasons and Ron Jirsa’s 35 and none in two seasons. But for the first three seasons, it’s behind Mark Fox’s 50 and one NCAA appearance, Jim Harrick’s 48 and two tourneys and Hugh Durham’s 47 and none. Tubby Smith had 45 wins and was 2-for-2 on tourneys in two seasons.

The Bulldogs’ SEC mark in Crean’s tenure probably is the most concerning data point, with a .350 winning percentage in three seasons (14-40). But his style of play is attractive to players and fans alike.

With this year’s class still to go, Georgia’s average recruiting ranking of 27 over three years is better than ever and also netted it the NBA draft’s top selection for 2020, in Anthony Edwards. Meanwhile, Georgia has gone from averaging 71.1 points per game in Crean’s first season, to 75.9 and then 77.5 last season. Not coincidentally, the Bulldogs set Stegeman Coliseum attendance records continually up until this past season’s socially distanced seating requirements.

“We play an exciting brand of basketball and that’s attractive,” Brooks said. “We’re a high-scoring team, which I think would be attractive to young men who want to get shots up. That, along with coach Crean’s development, the University of Georgia education, all that I think makes us an attractive option.”

Crean currently has three years remaining on six-year contract that pays him $3.5 million annually. Between COVID-19 and the rapidly changing state of the college game, Brooks said patience is paramount for everyone concerned.

“The future of men’s basketball is going to look different moving forward,” Brooks said. “I’ve always said that ‘change is inevitable; growth is optional.’ So, as we look at a changing landscape, we have to adapt and evolve. And through my meetings with coach Crean and working with his staff, I feel very good about our ability to adapt to the new environment.”