Georgia Bulldogs basketball returns to court

Georgia coach Tom Crean thanks the cheerleaders for their support and for firing up the crowd after a 84-51 victory over Kennesaw State on Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018, in Athens. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Georgia coach Tom Crean thanks the cheerleaders for their support and for firing up the crowd after a 84-51 victory over Kennesaw State on Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018, in Athens. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Tom Crean is a hugger and a yeller and a Class A program promoter. So, these are especially challenging times for Georgia’s third-year coach.

“We’re all socially awkward to a point with this,” Crean said during a video conference with reporters Tuesday. “I know I am. I want to hug, I want to handshake, all those things. Can’t do it. It just takes us time to get to know that.”

Crean is expected to be further challenged next week as Monday marks the first day that Georgia’s men’s basketball team can conduct coach-supervised, countable-hour practices. The Bulldogs currently are three players shy of having a full squad available for those practices.

But Crean said that the absences to date of returning starters Toumani Camara and Sahvir Wheeler and transfer P.J. Horne are part of the phased-in approach UGA is taking to players returning to campus and that he expects them to be able participate next week once they clear COVID-19 testing protocols. The rest of the 15-player team began arriving in late June and have continued to show up in waves the past three weeks.

There are reasons those three players in particular were designated for late arrivals. Horne, a graduate transfer from Virginia Tech who hails from Tifton, has to complete his degree requirements before enrolling at UGA. Meanwhile, Crean said he likes the local training situations that Camara and Wheeler have in their respective hometowns, and they’re the most experienced players on what is going to be a very young team.

“Those two have had phenomenal situations to work with, and I just haven’t wanted to uproot that,” Crean said of Camara and Wheeler.

Horne, a 6-foot-6 forward, is one of eight newcomers on what will be Crean’s third team at Georgia. The Bulldogs were 16-16 on March 12 when the season was canceled in the second round of SEC Tournament because of the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

The world of athletics had been halted since then until recent weeks. Professional sports initiated a slow but cautious restart to competition last month, and college football and basketball players were allowed to return to campus.

A recent resurgence in the COVID-19 outbreak has given pause to collegiate leadership about returning to competition this fall and there are discussions of altering or postponing the respective sports. Crean said he’s staying out of the debate about whether college athletics resume, but that he and his players feel safe.

“What we’ve done here is outstanding, in my mind,” Crean said. “It’s like a working document, so to speak. It’s ongoing. We’re so fortunate to have Ron Courson. … Having Ron in charge of this is phenomenal. We know we’re taking the right steps.”

Crean was asked point blank if he, his players or members of his staff have been diagnosed with the virus or the disease that it causes.

“I’m not even sure how I can answer that legally, so I’m not going to,” Crean said. “I’m not trying to be evasive. … It’s constantly changing. Everything we’re dealing with is not written in pen, it’s written in pencil. You have to be able to adjust because it’s changing all the time.”

In the meantime, there is much work to be done. Essentially Crean is having to execute a complete makeover of his roster for the third consecutive year. In addition to losing last season’s seniors, he’s had to adjust to the early NBA exits of freshman Anthony “Ant Man” Edwards and junior Rayshaun Hammonds and several transfers.

As a result, Crean hit the transfer portal for help. Six of the Bulldogs’ eight newcomers are transfers from other college programs.

“We knew we needed to get older,” Crean said. “There was no question about that. There’s no way I wanted to come back as young as we were. … We also had to address shooting big-time.”

In the meantime, the promotional health of Georgia’s basketball program is at an all-time high. Despite the Bulldogs going 27-37 (7-29 SEC) under Crean’s watch these past two seasons, they’ve set an attendance record by drawing crowds of 10,000 or more for 17 of their home games, including a record 11 times last season.

“Momentum, I could sit here and be concerned about that every day,” said Crean, who is 388-268, including 18 seasons at Marquette and Indiana. “We set an attendance record and then broke it a year later. Now, none of us know what’s going to happen. … So, the best thing we can do is just continue to have energy around the program.”

For now, the mere presence of the 54-year-old Crean is enough to do that. Eventually, he hopes sustained success will do the job.

In the meantime, he’s excited just to get to practice.

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