Tom Crean’s job in jeopardy as Georgia prepares for No. 1 Auburn

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

ATHENS – Georgia basketball’s roster was ravaged by the transfer portal. The Bulldogs were further decimated by season-ending knee injuries to two starters. Everybody knows that.

But those facts do little to soothe the sensibilities of a basketball fan base that’s more rabid than outsiders might realize. There is outrage and anger among them as they stare at the inevitability of a fourth consecutive losing SEC season under coach Tom Crean.

Georgia’s present inadequacies will be on stark display at 1 p.m. Saturday at Stegeman Coliseum. On the opposite side of the scorer’s table from Crean and the Bulldogs will be Bruce Pearl and his No. 1-ranked Auburn basketball team. Occupying those seats on the Tigers’ end will be several players who represent a real-life version of what Georgia’s team could have been. There is:

  • Walker Kessler, a 7-foot-1 sophomore and triple UGA legacy from Newnan who ranks second in the nation in blocked shots (4.2 per game);
  • Jabari Smith, a 6-10 freshman forward from Fayetteville who projects as the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NBA draft;
  • And K.D. Johnson, a starting guard from Atlanta who transferred to Auburn from Georgia over the summer.

Johnson was one of eight transfers who left UGA in a lurch after last season. Thanks to the NCAA’s new rule that offers immediately eligibility for one-time transfers, Johnson went from being Georgia’s second-leading scorer (13.5 ppg) last season to Auburn’s No. 3 scorer (13.2) and one of the Bulldogs’ chief concerns in Saturday’s contest.

“To me, it’s just another road game,” Johnson said in a telephone interview before Auburn’s practice Thursday. “But, of course, there’s going to be something in the air from me being there before. So, I guess you could say there’s some tension between us. But, to me, it’s nothing at all. It’s just another game that I’m looking forward to playing.”

While it may not be a big deal to Johnson, it is to Crean. His time at Georgia is running out at Georgia, and that’s in large part because of the mass exodus of elite players such as Johnson.

Jordan Bazant, Crean’s New York-based agent, sought a contract extension for Crean over the summer. That’s understandable as Crean was entering the fourth year of a six-year deal worth $3.2 million annually that he struck with the Bulldogs when hired in March 2018.

The request was denied.

So, from a recruiting standpoint, Crean entered this season as a lame-duck coach. It has gotten only worse as the harsh realities of SEC basketball season have tightened their grip on the Bulldogs. They had lost nine games in a row before snapping the streak with a win over Alabama on Jan. 25. Georgia (6-16, 1-8) has lost two more games since, 85-77 to Vanderbilt on the road and 99-73 to Arkansas at home Wednesday.

The situation has reached a point of critical mass. Georgia Athletic Director Josh Brooks and President Jere Morehead were asked about Crean’s job security after the athletic association’s board of directors meeting Wednesday. Only Brooks addressed it, and then not directly.

“When I’m in-season with a coach, my focus is on how can I be supportive and how can I help in any way that’s productive?” said Brooks, who oversees 15 head coaches of 21 teams. “So, anything I do or say, I want it to be productive for that team and helping those student-athletes have the best season they can have. My energy and focus is on, ‘how can I help?’”

As for the extraordinarily negative impact the transfer portal has had on Georgia’s roster, Brooks’ comments will do little to bolster Crean’s confidence.

“There’s intricacies in each sport, but ultimately the head coach is the leader of that program,” Brooks said. “So, you’ve got to work through all that. But there are differences from sport-to-sport factoring into it. The transfer portal did not just impact us. It impacted basketball teams throughout the country. So, you’ve got to be cognizant of that.”

As for Crean, he has maintained a remarkably upbeat and determined disposition. A veteran of 22 seasons as a college head coach, Crean has kept a head-up, eyes-forward attitude as the SEC schedule enters its second month.

“I try to stay 100 percent focused on the present and focused on what the team needs each day and zero percent on my future,” Crean told the AJC. “That’s the way it’s always been. I pray for that peace from God to do my best each day in giving people what they need to be their best.”

Crean will be OK regardless. According to the terms of his contract, Georgia still will owe him $3.2 million if he’s fired after this season. That number drops to $1.6 million should Crean resign.

So, how exactly did the Bulldogs get here?

Georgia’s descent was accelerated after it lost starting forwards P.J. Horne and Jailyn Ingram to season-ending knee injuries, one in the preseason and the other nine games into the season. But the real damage was inflicted last spring when major contributors headed elsewhere.

It started when rising senior Tye Fagan sought a bigger role at Ole Miss, where he’s still coming off the bench but is averaging 7.4 points while playing in all 22 games. Later, the Bulldogs lost starting guard Sahvir Wheeler to Kentucky, starting forward Toumani Camara to Dayton and starting guard Justin Kier to Arizona. Other contributors such as Andrew Garcia, Christian Brown and Mikal Starks, also sought new destinations.

Johnson was the last to go. His exit was particularly hurtful since UGA had worked so hard to help him gain his academic eligibility in January 2021. Georgia even assisted him in maintaining it last summer after Johnson had committed to Auburn.

What’s still not clear is why so many Georgia players sought do-overs?

“Yeah, I’m not sure what’s going on in that program right now, so I can’t speak too much about that,” Johnson said. “My focus is on what we’ve got going on and building a new dynasty over here (at Auburn). We’re on the road to making history and that’s all I’m focused on right now.”

Indeed, Auburn is fielding one of its best teams of all time. The Tigers (21-1, 9-0 SEC) won their 18th game in a row when they throttled Alabama 100-81 on Tuesday. Johnson had 13 points, eight rebounds and three steals while playing 32 minutes in that game.

Smith, who was the No. 1-ranked player in Georgia when he graduated from Sandy Creek High, had 25 points against the Crimson Tide. He leads the team in scoring (15.6 ppg) and is shooting 40.4% from 3-point range. Georgia was not a finalist in Smith’s recruitment.

Kessler had 14 points, 12 rebounds and eight blocks against Bama. He turned down the Bulldogs twice. He is the son of UGA basketball letterman Chad Kessler, brother of former Georgia player Houston Kessler and the nephew of the late Alec Kessler, who starred on the Bulldogs’ 1990 SEC Championship team and is considered one of the Bulldogs’ greatest players of all time. Yet he signed with North Carolina out of Woodward Academy and chose Auburn over Georgia when he sought a transfer last season.

It’s not like Crean can’t coach. Just two weeks ago, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame at Marquette, where he signed Dwyane Wade and led the Golden Eagles to the Final Four in 2003. After inheriting a rebuilding job at Indiana, Crean led the Hoosiers to a pair of Big Ten titles and two Sweet Sixteen appearances. But he eventually was fired because he could not advance the proud program further.

At Georgia, Crean seemed to be headed for greatness when he signed the nation’s No. 1 recruit in Anthony “Ant Man” Edwards in the top-10 2019 recruiting class that included Wheeler, Camara and other Top 100 prospects. But the Bulldogs went 16-16 in the Edwards’ single, pandemic-shortened season, and then he became the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft.

All that leaves the Bulldogs where they are, with a patchwork roster preparing to face the nation’s hottest team. Crean’s focus remains on making the best of the current situation.

“It’s not my first time down that road in the coaching life, and you learn from experiences,” Crean said last week. “My focus is completely centered on the team and how we can get better and prepare for these games. That’s the most important thing.”

If Crean does not survive another season as Georgia’s coach, it will be as much because of the players that are no longer on the roster as the ones that are. Some of both will be on display at Stegeman Coliseum on Saturday.