New-look Bulldogs open basketball season vs. FIU

Georgia basketball player Aaron Cook (10), a transfer from Gonzaga, scores on a layup against Morehouse during an exhibition game at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens on Friday, Nov. 3, 2021. (Photo by Tony Walsh/UGA Athletics)

Credit: Tony Walsh

Credit: Tony Walsh

Georgia basketball player Aaron Cook (10), a transfer from Gonzaga, scores on a layup against Morehouse during an exhibition game at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens on Friday, Nov. 3, 2021. (Photo by Tony Walsh/UGA Athletics)

ATHENS – There are 14 players from seven different states. Ten of them are newcomers. Eight of them started their college careers at different schools. Tuesday night, they will come together as one seeking Georgia’s first victory in what promises to be a long and challenging basketball season.

Trying to build something out all those disparate pieces is coach Tom Crean. His fourth edition of Bulldogs will play host to Florida International in the season opener at Stegeman Coliseum tonight (7 p.m., SECN-plus).

“It’s a daily process,” Crean said Monday of trying to mesh the newness together. “I think the most important thing is to go in with a plan each day, be ready to adjust the plan and try to learn each other the best you can as coaches and players. That’s where the chemistry gets built. They have done a great job on working, building togetherness.”

Thanks to a preseason knee injury to senior forward P.J. Horne, Georgia has zero returning starters from last year’s 14-12 team (7-11 SEC). But the total rebuild scenario is not unique to the Bulldogs. Their seven transfers are only slightly above the SEC average (6).

Where Georgia is coming up short is on experience in Crean’s “positionless-basketball” system. Junior guard Jaxon Etter, a former walkon from Woodstock, is the leading returning scorer with 2.4 points per game. Sophomore Josh Taylor is the leading returning rebounded at 1.6 a game.

But Crean and his staff worked hard to replace lost experience with experience from elsewhere. The Bulldogs’ seven transfers not only come from established winning programs such as Gonzaga, Southern Cal and Virginia, but also feature team leaders from mid-level programs.

Braelen Bridges, a 6-foot-11 senior from Atlanta, averaged 10.1 points and 5.0 rebounds per game last year at Illinois-Chicago (UIC). He led the Bulldogs with a double-double in their 64-49 exhibition win over Morehouse. Jailyn Ingram, a 6-7 shooter from Madison who came to Georgia from Florida Atlantic, paced Georgia with 19 points in its first exhibition game against Charlotte.

The idea of playing on an SEC team in Crean’s high-scoring system closer to home was quite appealing to graduate transfers such as Bridges and Ingram.

“He really doesn’t have any limits on guys,” Ingram said of Crean. “He wants guys to come in and put in a lot of work, develop their game to the best of their ability and really just lets everyone play free and fast. … Coach Crean wants to play fast, shoot a lot of 3s, get a lot of lay-ups, and I’m sure that is something that everyone wants to do.”

For every player playing “up” from their previous stop, Crean brought in players who have been involved with power teams in championship pursuits. Sophomore guard Jabri Abdur-Rahim came from Virginia, Noah Baumann from USC and Aaron Cook from Gonzaga.

“We have a lot of older guys like Noah, who has been in college and played basketball at a high level,” said Abdur-Rahim, nephew of former UGA assistant coach Amir Abdur-Rahim. “Aaron went to the Final Four last year with Gonzaga, obviously going undefeated in the regular season. I think with everything that I experienced, I have gathered all that stuff and it has helped me be the vocal leader on the court.”

If the new-look Bulldogs are to be successful, they’ll need to overcome expectations. They were picked to finish 14th out of 14 SEC teams in the preseason.

Georgia plans to do that, but can take it on only one day and one game at a time. That starts with Florida International tonight.

“The maturity aspect of the team is such a huge deal,” Crean said. “We have a pretty good blend of old and younger. You have to keep making sure that you just navigate the waters as they come. That’s exactly what this offseason was like and I’m extremely proud of the way these guys have come into Georgia. They have come in excited to be at Georgia and they have come in really working hard for Georgia.”

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