Tom Crean hasn’t won at UGA. I still believe he can, though

After 110 games and 3-1/2 seasons, Georgia under Tom Crean is, according to Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, the lowest-rated team among the Power 5 leagues plus the Big East. In ordinary times, that’d be enough for me to say, “Next.” I can’t in good conscience say that today.

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Crean’s Bulldogs are 47-63 overall, 15-46 in SEC play, and the arrow isn’t pointing up. Georgia was (KenPom again) the nation’s 95th-best team last season; entering Tuesday’s game against Alabama, this edition was 229th.

It would be no shock if Georgia opts to move on without Crean, who was hired by athletic director Greg McGarity, now overseeing the Gator Bowl. The separation between football and hoops has never been wider. Two days before Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs beat Michigan by 23 points, Crean’s Bulldogs lost to Gardner-Webb by 17. If AD Josh Brooks believes he has seen enough, I’d understand. It isn’t, however, what I’d do.

Georgia beat Bama 82-76 on Tuesday. On the day Nick Saban’s team upset the Bulldogs for the SEC championship, Nate Oats’ Crimson Tide toppled No. 2 Gonzaga in Seattle. Before Tuesday, Crean’s Bulldogs hadn’t won since Dec. 20.

They trailed by nine with 18:40 remaining. Three days earlier, Georgia led South Carolina 60-53 with 10-plus minutes left. The Gamecocks scored the next 24 points. In a season pockmarked with home losses not just to Gardner-Webb but also to Wofford, George Mason and East Tennessee State, the collapse in Columbia might have been the nadir. And yet …

Georgia outfought Alabama over the final seven minutes. The Bulldogs found better shots, drew lots of fouls and defended Bama, which plays fast and loose, with a purpose. Yes, this is college basketball, where weird things happen, and yes, the game was played in Athens, but still: A fragile team steeled itself and won a game it wasn’t supposed to win.

This was Crean, speaking afterward: “That’s what we’ve said – we just have to get this thing started. That happened for us tonight.”

Crean’s fourth season in Athens surely will end with more than 20 losses. This much must be said, though: His years at Georgia have come during extraordinary times for college basketball, not to mention the whole wide world.

The 21 losses of Crean’s first season were offset by the signing of Anthony Edwards, the biggest talent Georgia had landed since Dominique Wilkins. Edwards would be a one-and-done, but the one season held massive promise. It ended 16-16. The Bulldogs wouldn’t have made the NCAA field unless they won the SEC tournament. Georgia beat Mississippi in the event’s opening game March 11, 2020. The tournament, like the Big Dance itself, was canceled the next day.

On cue, Edwards announced his exit. What nobody could have foreseen was that Georgia would bank no momentum from his signing class, ranked 11th nationally by 247Sports.

Said Crean: “Without traction, you don’t get sustainability. Traction’s hard. There have been moments of it. We’ve got the No. 1 player (Edwards) in the draft, the best freshman in the country, and we were never able to go out and recruit to that. Yes, you’re recruiting on Zoom, but you’re not going out in the public. My other places where we had really good players, people not only could see them play, but you could go out and say, ‘Hey, you can be like that.’”

That the 2020-21 season came off during a pandemic was a wonder. Minus Edwards, Georgia wasn’t awful. It went 14-12, 7-11 in SEC play. Then almost everyone scattered – Sahvir Wheeler to Kentucky, K.D. Johnson to Auburn, Tye Fagan to Mississippi, Toumani Camara to Dayton. P.J. Horne, the only significant holdover, hurt his knee and hasn’t played. Jailyn Ingram, whom Crean considered his best player, tore his ACL in December. With a roster populated by transfers, this season’s Bulldogs were picked to finish last in the SEC.

Should Crean have done better with Edwards? Probably. But of the NBA’s past nine No. 1 picks, only one – Karl-Anthony Towns in 2015 – graced a Final Four. The convergence of the coronavirus and the transfer portal has thrown wide the doors to chaos. It’s not just hard to coach Georgia. It’s hard to coach anywhere.

Not to sound crass, but I’m not sure Georgia will find anyone better. Crean took Marquette to the Final Four. He won the Big Ten twice with Indiana. He apprenticed at Michigan State under Tom Izzo. The reasons McGarity hired him haven’t evaporated.

Then again, isn’t $3.2 million a lot to pay a coach whose first conference victory of the season came Jan. 25 and was cause for celebration? Yes, it is. But Crean is under contract for two more years. He’ll get paid whether he coaches or not. Having gone this far, would it hurt to go a bit longer?

Indiana, which cares about roundball the way Georgia cares about football, stuck with Crean after he began with three consecutive 20-loss seasons. “The most important thing you can do is never panic no matter what happens, and I don’t,” he said Monday. “There’s nothing that would ever rival what we went through at Indiana.”

Crean was 28-66 after three seasons in Bloomington. His Hoosiers reached the NCAA tournament four of the next five years, advancing to the Sweet 16 three times. I’m not a patient person, but I’d give him the benefit of the doubt.

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