Ready or not, almost time for Georgia basketball to take the court

Georgia believes P.J. Horne, a 6-foot-6 transfer from Virginia Tech who hails from Tifton, is going to make a difference in its frontcourt play this season. (Tony Walsh/UGA)
Georgia believes P.J. Horne, a 6-foot-6 transfer from Virginia Tech who hails from Tifton, is going to make a difference in its frontcourt play this season. (Tony Walsh/UGA)

Credit: Anthony Walsh

Credit: Anthony Walsh

ATHENS — And just like that — snap! — Georgia has a basketball season to play.

The Bulldogs finally finalized their non-conference schedule and, as of Thursday, they have a grand total of 13 days to prepare for their season opener, which will be Nov. 25 against Columbus State.

There will be no exhibition game with which to get ready, and Georgia will conduct its first practice with SEC referees officiating Friday. So, ready or not, it’s time to play.

That’s especially challenging for coach Tom Crean’s third Georgia team, which once again will be starting over almost from scratch, with eight newcomers on the roster.

“It IS hard,” Crean said during a video conference call with reporters Thursday. “At some point you’d like to have a little more stability rather than just having five guys back. I hope that we do over a period of time. But the way college basketball is changing, with the potential for what’s going to happen with transfer rules right in front of us, that’s here to stay. … You don’t have much clarity at all because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

It seems like Georgia has been in a perpetual state of rebuilding since Crean came on the scene in 2018. The 54-year-old former Marquette and Indiana coach is 27-37 (7-29 SEC) since taking over the Bulldogs' program. Now he’s facing a third season without early NBA draft entrants Anthony Edwards and Rayshaun Hammonds, two players who transferred and a dismissed player who otherwise would be on the roster.

The Bulldogs were showing signs of improvement last season, but then the season abruptly ended when the fast-approaching coronavirus pandemic shut down college basketball. Georgia was 16-16 (5-13 SEC) and preparing to face Florida in the second round of the SEC Tournament in Nashville at the time.

Fast forward to this fall, and the Bulldogs have stopped and started several times before finally settling in on earnest preseason preparation last month. They will conduct their 22nd of 30 allotted practices with Friday’s scrimmage at Stegeman Coliseum.

Throw some bouts with COVID-19 infections and exposures in there, and the depth of Georgia’s offseason challenges are apparent.

“We’ve had some sicknesses that we’ve had to deal with throughout this period, but you get used to it,” Crean said. “You get used to injuries and you get used to what you’re dealing with sickness-wise. We’ve had COVID cases with the staff and with the team. But every day is another opportunity for this team to get better and that’s exactly what they’re doing.”

Crean would not share the identity of individuals who were infected, but he said that his team is healthy now. The task at this point is getting the returning and new players to play together, develop chemistry and figure out who’s going to be doing what before facing the 25-game slate.

“Their energy has been fantastic, the camaraderie has been good, their spirit has been good and I love coaching them,” Crean said. “We have eight new players, so there’s so much going on that’s new for everybody every day. Plus, we’re really trying to expand our pace offensively and defensively.”

The biggest unknown is what Georgia will do to provide low-post offense and defense. The Bulldogs don’t have a player taller than 6-foot-9 and many of those over 6-5 aren’t traditional post players, such as 6-8 sophomore Toumani Camara.

But Crean insists great size is not necessary to be productive on offense or defense in the frontcourt. He spoke excitedly about the inside presence of 6-6 Virginia Tech transfer P.J. Horne in particular.

“P.J. made 45 3′ as a junior at Virginia Tech and graduated in three years,” Crean said. “Our guys get excited every time he touches the ball, and I know I do.”

Otherwise, the Bulldogs hit the transfer portal hard for the likes of 6-9 sophomore Tyrone McMillan of Kilgore (Texas) College and 6-8 junior Jonathan Ned of Eastern Florida Community College.

Of course, the Bulldogs also will be leaning hard on returning veterans such as guards Sahvir Wheeler and Tye Fagan and sophomores Christian Brown and Jaykwon Walton.

Crean wouldn’t say if graduate transfer Justin Kier and three other unnamed basketball players who were with him during an Oct. 9 arrest that included serious traffic violations and the admission of marijuana use would be suspended for any of the Bulldogs' early games. Georgia has seven non-conference contests before embarking on the Dec. 30 SEC opener against Mississippi State in Athens.

“We’re going through the disciplinary process, and we’re going to address that incident, not only internally but with the athletic association,” Crean said. “… We’re still working through that. There’s no question it was disappointing, and we’ve taken steps from that day on, which are continuing.”

In the meantime, the Bulldogs are happy just to know that basketball games are right around the corner and they can finally focus on playing ball.

“I really, really like the way they’ve come together, the way that they listen,” Crean said. “I like the way they support each other and are buying into the structure. They don’t get frustrated and it would be very easy to because we’re having some tough, tough practices. … It’s all new and it’s really been a cluster. But everybody’s going through it.”

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