Han Vance on Georgia men’s basketball: Let’s look at new coach Tom Crean together.
A Michigander, Coach Tom Crean graduated from Central Michigan and has never worked in the South. He was the second choice for the UGA job, based primarily on the superior overall resume of Thad Matta, who has won 74% of the games he has coached in his career and helped to emerge current national power Xavier before successes at football-crazed Ohio State. Conversely, Crean came into tough situations at sleeping giants – way tougher than what he inherits at Georgia – and relatively quickly built them back into winners.
Crean married into the heralded Harbaugh family, so he gets the power and everlasting importance of football somewhat. Although nothing compares to the football crazies of the SEC, where it just means more.
Mark Fox was fired after winning 60% of his games at Georgia, and Crean has a career winning percentage right there at 6-of-10, which is certainly nothing to brag about in general. But, the numbers skew significantly because of the rebuilds. Marquette was a former national champion, but they were far from a household name brand when Crean entered as head coach. Prior, he was a Tom Izzo disciple and somewhat of an offensive Yin to the defense-minded Izzo’s Yang at basketball great Michigan State.
Every basketball coach can ultimately be classified as offense first or defense first, almost like in football. Mark Fox’s squads routinely led or nearly led the league in defensive efficiency, yet those teams struggled to score enough to win at a level to extend his tenure. He only made the NCAA tournament twice in Athens, after three trips at the back of his time in Nevada.
Born in 1966, Crean finally appeared at Marquette in 1999. They went an unremarkable 15-14, then 15-14 his first two years. His fourth team was 27-6 and made the Final Four after his third team was 26-7. Those teams featured the inimitable Dwyane Wade, and afterward, Marquette slipped back to a Mark Fox-like nineteen wins, then nineteen wins again, then twenty wins. The thing is, though, Marquette had moved up from the mid-tier Conference USA to the fabled Big East. Crean’s big, outgoing personality was considered a huge key to the invite. Mark Fox is a nice enough guy publicly, but nobody in Athens confused him with the confidently charismatic. Crean shined as an analyst on TV, very recently.
Marquette surged back up to 24-10, then 25-10. The type of records Georgia wishes for and has not had, outside of a two-year window before Tubby Smith left Athens for not-counteroffered double pay and much, much greener basketball pastures in Kentucky, where he won the national championship in his first year or the black-eye-after Jim Harrick era, when the UGA program was Louisville-like in noncompliance but winning. Smith was a master motivator with guys in key position to defend, then maximize offensive opportunities. Harrick, an offensive genius who can create consistent open shots off a mid-key motion triangle.
Tom likes to run. His squads thrive on fast breaks, spacing and penetration with kick outs. Shot selection is key, and all recall that Georgia couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn this year, outside. Which is generally less about scheme and more about the mental fortitude of individual players. Those same guards made those exact same shots in high school to end up at Georgia.
Fox’s sides suffered when he had his best players. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Yante Maten are two of the three best basketball players in school history, and they didn’t get to dance. Give Crean a hero like that, a D-Wade or any number of fundamental, honed Indianans and he gets the wins with them. Tall, talented Rayshaun Hammonds may be his hero.
A multiplicity of offensive variations is the hallmark of Crean’s with-ball schemes, which is beneficial in surviving scoring droughts – Georgia’s by far biggest problem this last lost season. On the negative, less than sound defenses and way too many turnovers were valid criticisms of his occasional teams that struggled.
Crean left, too. He bolted little Marquette for the storied hoops program at Indiana. Almost Saban-like at the time, going from a good-to-great LSU to a badly busted Bama. They were straight garbage back then in the heartland. Crean went 6-25, the worst record in IU history, his first year in Bloomington.
They won just ten, then twelve. He was the worst Hoosier coach ever! Then, he took them to the Sweet Sixteen in back-to-back years at 27-9 and 29-7. They slipped to seventeen wins, then popped right back up to twenty, then 27-18 and back to the Sweet Sixteen. One somewhat bad year (eighteen wins, NIT), and he was fired. On the one hand, he missed the NCAAs 3-of-4 times. On the other, they had just made the Sweet Sixteen 3-of-5 times.
Like I said of Kentucky recently, at Georgia: We are no Indiana. That type of success could shine forever in the lovely Classic City. Thad’s loss. Good hire for Greg McGarity.