If Tom Crean is out, who should be in? Jonas Hayes, UGA alum

Former Georgia assistant coach Jonas Hayes (right) is being mentioned as a candidate to replace coach Tom Crean if he doesn't return next season. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

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Former Georgia assistant coach Jonas Hayes (right) is being mentioned as a candidate to replace coach Tom Crean if he doesn't return next season. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Tom Crean won the Big Ten. He’d coached at Indiana and Marquette, programs of national profile. He’d coached big-time players. His Florida neighbor – name of Dick Vitale – insisted Crean really wanted the Georgia job. His opening statement at his introductory press briefing ran 27 minutes. He was rested and ready. It seemed a fine hire.

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Four years later, we ask: What’s the high point of Crean’s four seasons in Athens? Two wins over Georgia Tech, which itself wasn’t very good? Beating Memphis twice? Probably it was beating No. 13 Auburn in February 2020, though upsetting Alabama this January seems more shocking with every day.

The Bama game stands as the Bulldogs’ only victory since Christmas. They went 1-17 in league play. They entered Wednesday’s SEC tournament game against Vanderbilt at 6-25. Ken Pomeroy’s ratings have them 210th among 358 Division I teams. Only one Power 5 or Big East team is lower – Oregon State, which is 3-27.

UGA has played college basketball, though not often well, since 1905. It had never lost more than 22 games in a season. The belief a month ago was that it would do no harm to give Crean another shot. That was predicated on the expectation that Georgia would fare better over the season’s final weeks. It went 0-11. The Bulldogs might have upset No. 1 Auburn had Wendell Green been called for a charge, but he wasn’t and they didn’t.

Esteemed AJC colleague Chip Towers reports that Georgia and Crean are expected to part ways. It would qualify as cruel and unusual punishment if they didn’t. This is far worse than a garden-variety down season. Of the Bulldogs’ top four scorers, three are seniors. Jailyn Ingram and P.J. Horne, lost to injuries, are grad students. Ten players on Georgia’s roster are transfers. The program added one player in the early signing period.

The biggest day of Crean’s stewardship involved no game. On Feb. 11, 2019, Anthony Edwards of Holy Spirit Prep announced he would sign with the Bulldogs. He was the nation’s No. 1 prospect. We knew he’d be one-and-done, but Carmelo Anthony and Anthony Davis and Jahlil Okafor won national championships as one-and-dones. Sure enough, Edwards was the NBA’s No. 1 pick in 2020. Alas, Georgia was 16-16 when his one collegiate season was halted by COVID-19.

Georgia’s signing class of 2019 was ranked No. 11 nationally by 247Sports. Five of those seven freshmen were rated in the top 103. All seven are gone. Crean’s breakthrough class left almost no imprint. He was unlucky in that, because of COVID, he and his staff couldn’t recruit in person in the offseason after Edwards. That, however, held for every program.

If Crean’s time in Athens is indeed at its end, a few names spring to mind. Grant McCasland has done nice work at North Texas of Conference USA, but Georgia went the hot-mid-major-guy route with Dennis Felton and Mark Fox. Steve Forbes has reignited moribund Wake Forest, but he just signed an extension. Besides, not many coaches leave the ACC for the SEC. (Dave Odom did, though. And Buzz Williams.)

Ron Hunter did splendid work at Georgia State, but he’s 57 and coming off three losing seasons at Tulane. Rick Pitino surely would leave Iona for a Power 5 job, but he wrecked the last major program he touched. There was the sex-in-the-restaurant issue. Then the strippers-in-the-dorm issue. Then the shoe-company-money-to-a-prospect’s-family issue, which – finally! – forced Louisville to dump him. Also, he’ll turn 70 in September.

The last time Georgia made a career assistant its hoops coach was when it promoted Ron Jirsa to replace Tubby Smith. Jirsa lasted two seasons. There’s your caveat. Here’s your recommendation: Jonas Hayes, who played at Georgia and is seen as a rising star in the business, is ready for his moment.

Hayes has been at Xavier the past four seasons. He worked at Georgia under Fox. In December 2017, Hayes helped land a commitment from Newton High’s Ashton Hagans, considered the best junior in this state. When it became clear Fox wouldn’t last until 2019, Hagans recanted, reclassified and signed with Kentucky. FYI, Xavier’s roster includes two players from Georgia, one from Alabama.

If memory serves, the Bulldogs have done OK in another sport by hiring an alum who was a career assistant. I’m not saying Jonas Hayes will take his first team to the Final Four. I am saying his first team won’t go 6-25.

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