Han Vance on Men’s College Basketball: Coach Tom Crean came to the University of Georgia at an interesting time for the biggest three men’s sports.
Considered to be on the hot seat himself by many at the start of this academic year, athletic director Greg McGarity suddenly soars. Kirby Smart has clearly been proven a good hire so far, winning the SEC and Rose Bowl in his second season in Athens, after a mediocre campaign that featured losses to Tennessee, Florida, Tech, Ole Miss and Vandy, on Homecoming. Sure, football is what matters the most – and always will – in Athens.
While the overall athletic department had generally remained fairly strong throughout, as it usually is at Georgia, the fingers were still being pointed because of the slippage in the so-called Big 3. One good hire with one great season does not a successful department make. Especially considering the obviousness of Kirby as the only candidate, in a long-awaited return to his alma mater. A number one recruiting class was further evidence that things are going well, although the national championship drought continued.
In college baseball, the Diamond Dawgs fell from a national runner-up and three SEC titles (one split) since the 2000-2001 season, to the hiring of a replacement coach who started with five straight losing seasons. Scott Stricklin is a Greg McGarity hire, and he was used as the prime evidentiary indictment of McGarity as a bust. Thing is, Georgia baseball has finally caught fire. The Bulldogs took out Texas A&M this past weekend and have only dropped one series all year, none in-league. The gas pedal must continue to be pushed, but McGarity remaining patient with Stricklin looks like the right move.
Mark Fox is the only Georgia men’s basketball coach with three consecutive twenty win seasons. They were fairly fruitless though, whole picture. His time in Athens netted no SEC titles, at a school that has so few, and no NCAA tournament wins. The time for a change came when Fox got the team off to the best start of his tenure, then failed to reach the Big Dance. Yante Maten carried the team as far as he could.
The Blue Bloods of college basketball is surely not the echelon of expectation: Villanova, North Carolina, Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, UConn, old UCLA, even Florida – who Georgia swept this season – all wear blue. All have multiple national championships and surprise nobody when they have a nice season. A good season at Georgia used to be simply going above .500; that is how low the bar had been set. Fox raised that bar by consistently making the team relevant late into seasons. A real fan cannot ignore a bubble team.
Yante Maten has matriculated, leaving Georgia as one of only three guys to earn SEC Player of the Year (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Dominique Wilkins). The NIT, which could stand for Not In Tournament, won’t soothe any lingering wounds in year one of the Crean era. It is already Big Dance or bust, as the majority of talent on this last team were maturing freshmen. Getting them running should equate to a few more wins, and with just a few more wins the team would have gotten in, though Maten will be missed as a scorer and rebounder. The team’s outside shooting was utterly atrocious. More motion on offense should open up more clean shots, but will it be enough to offset the loss of the leading scorer in the SEC?
The conference was considered the deepest in league history, but the SEC did not fare well in the NCAA tournament and has no current marquee programs outside of Kentucky. As basketball is not divided into divisions within the league, Georgia is not log-jammed behind Kentucky (and Florida) with little opportunity for advancement. Winning the SEC is not an easily obtainable goal, but reaching the NCAA should be.