Han Vance on Georgia basketball: UGA men’s head basketball coach Tom Crean must feel like the honeymoon is already over. As good coaches do in seasonal scheduling, Crean took his Bulldogs to an exotic location for a so-called preseason tournament, meaning a tourney which takes place before conference play ensues. It is good for team-building and strength of schedule.
The sky was the limit It seemed early, as Georgia benefitted from a 2-0 exhibition season with wins over tiny West Georgia and at UAB. Carrying that experience, starting a young team featuring sophomores as its best players, Georgia took out another smaller in-state program in Savannah State, opening the season at Stegeman Coliseum in style with an exciting running the court offense.
A late, close loss on a road trip to Philly to face an experienced Temple Owls excusable enough, Georgia bounced back with a nice win at home over a smaller program Sam Houston State Bearkats out of Texas. At 2-1, the Hoop Hounds had sudden confidence, especially in a triumvirate of high-performing big men, Rayshaun Hammonds and Nicolas Claxton, especially, and the workman-like Derek Ogbeide.
Tyree Crump provided an outside spark and had added a fiercer drive to his arsenal, but guard play was my primary concern as no true dominant point guard was working the game. Never a good sign to not get quality point guard play, Coach Crean seemed to be offsetting the team’s weak spot by having his bigs handle the rock more than is usual.
He believes in all-skills for all players on the roster, which bodes well for the future as far as skill development of the young team. The future seemed to come early as Georgia jumped to 3-1 with an opening site win on Grand Cayman for the Cayman Islands Classic. Beating Illinois State represented the first win of the Crean era (that counted) away from the cushy confines of home court. Stars were emerging in a suddenly seemingly unstoppable Hammonds and Claxton, nicknamed the Slim Reaper.
That Claxton is a UGA legacy, the son of a guy I knew and played ball with in Athens summers of old and had football tailgated with recently and seen last season at Georgia’s hoops win over LSU, added to my early season excitement. The kid was a shot blocking machine. Hammonds felt improved to me, off mostly untapped freshman potential from the season prior, when I’d covered the team for Bulldawg Illustrated. Another signifier that this could be better than a straight rebuilding year.
Then #16, the Clemson Tigers were the second day draw on Grand Cayman, a physically-gifted team from the current top basketball conference in America, the ACC. Georgia hung around with them but never really threatened, doing it mostly with outside shooting and fading down the stretch. Crean’s bigs were minimized by the imposing and seasoned front court from the old football rival’s team. Georgia got schooled by 15.
Here’s what he was hoping wouldn’t happen: Georgia drew tough Atlanta basketball school Georgia State and their veteran coach in the losers’ bracket of the tournament. And got blown out.
Georgia routinely skirts scheduling State, as losses, which have come in past meetings, hurt recruiting. The flagship of the great state of Georgia getting the business end from a commuter school from a lesser conference only illustrates further how much of a pure football school Ol’ Georgia is. It is bad for basketball health at UGA to be losing to the Panthers. That they are a sometime NCAA tournament program, that has even made some runs there, does little to offset the lasting sting of loss.
Georgia now finds itself just 3-3, with three losses to all of the good teams it has faced and three wins against the relatively weaker programs. Considering the strength of this year’s SEC, this does not bode well at all for a strong league campaign, which starts January 5th at a powerful Tennessee Vols.
Enter the Owls, more Owls, these of Cobb County’s Kennesaw State University. Georgia must get this in-state win to go above .500 (TUE 7p SECN) and then continue to build momentum on December 3rd, with a visit from another lesser Texas program, Texas Southern (MON 7p SECN).
Bigger programs are not far away on the schedule: Arizona State, Georgia Tech, Texas, the SEC.