Georgia wants much more in Tom Crean’s fourth year as coach

I always chuckle when I see the SEC’s marketing motto applied to men’s basketball. It just means more than football for one program, Kentucky. It might be that way for Vanderbilt and league latecomer Missouri. For the rest of the SEC, how much men’s basketball means tends to matter in the moment while the feelings about football are never fleeting.

I was thinking about that Thursday while watching Tom Crean take frenzied steps on the “It just means more” logo painted on Georgia’s sideline at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.

The Bulldogs lost to Missouri in their opening game of the conference tourney. They are 14-12 overall and finished 7-11 in the SEC, tied for 10th place. Their NCAA Tournament drought is at six games. Their season is over unless the NIT picks them for its 16-team field.

The Bulldogs should be better next season. How much better should they be? How much more should basketball mean?

Georgia is 41-49 in three seasons with Crean as coach. Its winning percentage has improved each season: 11-21, 16-16, 14-12. The SEC record has done the same: 2-16, 5-13, 7-11. Georgia won its SEC Tournament opener last season before the pandemic ended it. The Bulldogs were one-and-out in the SEC tourney this season and in 2019.

It’s fine if Georgia fans feel that basketball is, as the old joke goes, just something to watch during the winter until spring football. There’s nothing wrong with being satisfied to watch a few wins at Stegeman Coliseum against any opponent. It’s OK if the bar is set at, say, an NCAA berth every so often with no off-court embarrassments

I doubt Crean’s bosses and the program’s donors feel the same way. Crean’s annual base salary of $3.2 million is on par with that he was making at Indiana before going to Athens. It’s the fifth-highest salary in the SEC, according to USA Today’s database. (That doesn’t include private school Vandy, but there’s no way coach Jerry Stackhouse’s salary is close to that high.)

Georgia could make a big leap in Year 4 with Crean. His first year was a rebuild. In Year 2 Anthony Edwards created buzz for the program before going on to be the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NBA draft. This season the Bulldogs were led by Edwards’ classmate, Sahvir Wheeler.

The Bulldogs had some good victories but never could get rolling. They could use more size and shooting next season. If they keep this group together, they’ll have talented team with experience.

After the Missouri game Crean said he didn’t want to talk about next season because he’s still hopeful for an NIT bid. Wheeler offered his views on the subject.

“Next year we are looking to be in the top-six, top-five range (in the SEC),” Wheeler said. “I know to some people that might sound crazy. But there have a few games where a couple possessions here and a couple stops there, and we would be right in those games.

“Next year I want take it a little more personally. For the SEC, that is my personal goal is finish top five, and I know we can make that happen.”

That’s good enough for an NCAA Tournament bid in most seasons. The Bulldogs haven’t finished that high in the league standings since they tied for third with an 11-7 mark in 2014-15. Coach Mark Fox’s team went on to lose its NCAA opener to Michigan State, which advanced to the Final Four.

Fox coached Georgia to two NCAA berths over nine seasons. Predecessor Dennis Felton cleaned up the scandal-plagued mess left behind by Jim Harrick. But he had one NCAA tourney berth over six seasons. Fox had Georgia back in the tournament in 2010-11, his second year.

Fox had a 163-133 record at Georgia (77-79 in SEC) when athletic director Greg McGarity fired him. McGarity, who retired at the end of last year, said at the time that the program had not reached its “full potential.” He ended up signing Crean for a salary that was more than 50 percent higher than Fox’s pay in his final contract.

Georgia did well to attract a coach with Crean’s success. But Alabama and Arkansas have gotten more bang for their buck with coaches they hired the year after Crean went to Georgia.

The Crimson Tide hired Nate Oats at a salary of $2.45 million. They were SEC regular-season champions this season and could earn a top seed in the NCAA Tournament. Alabama bumped Oats’ salary to $3.22 million last month.

Arkansas hired Eric Musselman in 2019 (he helped turn around the Golden State Warriors as coach way back before the Steph Curry era). Musselman’s $2.5 million base salary is tied for lowest among SEC public schools. The Razorbacks finished second in the SEC this season.

Alabama and Arkansas poached their coaches from the mid-major ranks. Both Oats and Musselman took over teams that probably were in better shape than what Crean inherited at Georgia.

The Tide hired Oats away from Buffalo. Alabama was 75-62 (34-38 SEC) with one NCAA tourney bid in four years with Avery Johnson. Oats’ first Alabama team had four junior starters and Kira Lewis, who was drafted No. 13 overall by the Pelicans in 2020.

Musselman left Nevada for Arkansas. The Hogs fired coach Mike Anderson after an eight-year run that included NCAA Tournament berths in 2015, ’17 and ’18. Arkansas finished 18-16 (8-10) in 2018-19. But the returning players in Musselman’s first season included standouts Isaiah Joe and Mason Jones.

Georgia was 57-44 (26-28) over Fox’s last three seasons. Not bad, but according to McGarity, not good enough. Crean’s 2018-19 team had two promising sophomores, Rayshaun Hammonds and Nicolas Claxton. The roster wasn’t deep, though. Crean stepped in it during that miserable season when he said publicly that it was his fault for not running off more players (Crean later apologized).

With Fox, Georgia went the route of hiring a successful coach from a mid-major conference. With Crean, the Bulldogs hired a coach with a resume comparable to Harrick, but without the baggage of past NCAA rules violations.

Crean won at Marquette with future NBA standout Dwyane Wade and long-time pro Wesley Matthews. Crean won at Indiana with future NBA standout Victor Oladipo and starting-caliber pros Cody Zeller and OG Anunoby. Indiana fired Crean because he couldn’t get them back to the level of their glory days of winning big with Bob Knight, which Knight hadn’t done for a while before he was forced out.

Crean’s final six seasons at Indiana were successful by non-blueblood standards. The Hoosiers were 138-69 during that span with two Big Ten regular-season titles, four NCAA bids and three trips to the tournament’s second week. The question for Crean at Georgia was whether he could recruit future pros and good college players to a place that doesn’t care about basketball nearly as much.

Georgia’s 2018 class didn’t include any players among the top 100 nationally in the 247Sports Composite ranking. Crean scored a massive recruiting victory the next year when Edwards of Holy Spirit Prep picked the Bulldogs. That class included three other top 100 players and was ranked 11th nationally.

The highest-rated player in UGA’s 2018 class, Savannah big-man Amanze Ngumezi, transferred to Jacksonville State last year after Crean suspended him. With Edwards a one-and-done, Wheeler is the most impactful player from the 2019 class. Sophomore big-man Toumani Camara has developed nicely, too.

Wheeler was voted to the All-SEC second team this season. He had planned to go to Texas A&M, near his hometown of Houston. Wheeler eventually decided to go far away from home to play for Crean.

“The players have all gotten better here under coach Crean,” Wheeler said. “For us, we are just looking to take this (season) and grow from it.”

We’ll see how far the Bulldogs can go with Crean as coach.