Time for another Big Dance with stars from Georgia playing elsewhere

The Georgia State Panthers are this season’s NCAA Tournament unicorns. They are from this state and going to the Big Dance with players from this state playing major roles. The Panthers are the antidote for anyone in these parts who’s sick of seeing teams from out of state celebrate March Madness with Georgia imports while their favorite team is left out.

Bulldogs fans who care about that probably should avoid watching too much of the tournament when the main event begins Thursday. Georgia-born players are everywhere again. Even worse for Bulldogs backers: Auburn is poised to make another deep run with star players from Georgia. Coach Bruce Pearl is doing for Auburn what Tom Crean was supposed to do for Georgia.

Crean temporarily reversed the trend of elite prospects leaving the state when he signed Atlanta’s Anthony Edwards in 2019. Four other national top-100 players joined Edwards. That Bulldogs team didn’t make the NCAA Tournament. Edwards left for the NBA after the season, and Crean’s program fell apart as other players from the 2019 class transferred elsewhere.

Georgia fired Crean on Thursday after the Bulldogs finished their worst season ever. His successor will have the same primary task: convince more of the state’s many good recruits to play in Athens. Good players tend to want to win important games and be in the spotlight. They get both with March Madness.

The Big Dance is a big deal. It got even bigger in 2011. That’s the first year that all games were televised in every market. Before that, viewers were at the mercy of their local CBS affiliate. Expanded TV coverage amplified the publicity bonanza for the programs that participate. Recruits see this.

The Bulldogs haven’t gotten that boost in years. Georgia last went to the NCAA Tournament in 2015. Players in the 2022 recruiting class were in elementary school then. Georgia last won a tourney game in 2002 (the NCAA later vacated the victory). This year’s high school seniors weren’t born yet.

In some states college basketball always is a big deal. Georgia isn’t one of them. It takes a lot to break through football’s hold on the public’s attention. Making the NCAA Tournament field is the best way to do it. Advancing to the second weekend multiplies that effect. There’s the buzz of making it through followed by a week of dreaming about going to the Final Four.

Georgia hasn’t made it as far as the Sweet 16 since 1996. Tubby Smith was the coach and Atlanta’s Shandon Anderson was the star. UGA’s lone Final Four appearance was in 1983. The next Bulldogs coach can’t sell tournament success. They’ll have to get the players who make future runs more likely.

Panthers coach Rob Lanier can’t offer local recruits the chance to play in a Power 5 conference. He can credibly tell them that there’s a good chance they’ll end up playing in the NCAA Tournament. This will be GSU’s fourth trip in eight years.

Former coach Ron Hunter brought his son, R.J., with him from Indianapolis, and the duo led GSU to an upset victory of Baylor in the 2015 tournament. Hunter got the Panthers back to the tourney two more times with D’Marcus Simonds of Gainesville. There are seven players from the state on GSU’s team this season, including all-conference guard Kane Williams (South Paulding).

Meanwhile, UGA’s SEC peers are signing players from the state and winning more than the Bulldogs with them.

The past five All-SEC teams featured 10 players who finished high school in Georgia. Just one of those state standouts, Edwards, played for the Bulldogs. Eight of the other nine Georgia natives voted All-SEC from 2018-22 played in the NCAA tourney at least once. Soon Arkansas guard JD Notae of Covington will join the list (Notae sat out when the Razorbacks went dancing last year).

Auburn has been the main SEC culprit in siphoning good players from the state. Pearl’s teams have placed six Georgia natives on All-SEC teams over his eight seasons at Auburn. There are three first-team selections this season: Jabari Smith (Sandy Creek), Walker Kessler (Woodward Academy) and Jaylin Williams (Brantley County).

Pearl has done well with star players from Georgia. The Tigers went to the 2019 Final Four with Jared Harper (Pebblebrook High) and Chuma Okeke (Westlake). They’ll give it another shot this year with Smith, Kessler and Williams. The Tigers also have Decatur sophomore K.D. Johnson, who transferred from Georgia to Auburn for this season.

Kessler’s family ties to UGA run deep. His father (Chad), uncle (Alec) and older brother (Houston) all played for the Bulldogs. Walker passed over UGA twice. He signed with North Carolina out of high school and transferred to Auburn for this season. Kessler is set to become the latest player to go out of state for college before being picked in the first round of the NBA draft

The state of Georgia has produced 23 first-round picks in the NBA draft from 2007-21. Only California and Texas, the nation’s two most populous state, have more. Just two of those 23 homegrown stars played for Georgia: Edwards and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope of Greenville.

Crean injected some excitement into Georgia’s program even before he signed Edwards. The Bulldogs set a home attendance record during his first season. They broke that record the next season with Edwards as the main attraction. The fun didn’t last long.

The Bulldogs didn’t win much with Edwards. They won a bit more the season after he left. Then they finished this season 6-26, 1-17 in the SEC. The hype generated by Edwards wasn’t followed by winning. The Bulldogs got the best high school player in the state, the future top NBA draft pick, and still couldn’t make it to the dance.

Georgia supporters got satisfaction from finally seeing the state’s top recruit at their school. The thrill was gone with the losing. Now here’s another year of seeing some of the best high school players from the state star for other teams in the NCAA Tournament.

It’s hard to win big in men’s basketball at Georgia. Athletic director Josh Brooks must figure out a way to hire a coach who can do it. Sign enough top recruits from the state, and the Bulldogs can be part of the Madness again.