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Georgia is still searching for a spark to the rebuild

Previewing the No. 12 team in the SEC, the Georgia Bulldogs.

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

This time a year ago, Anthony Edwards and his hype train pulled into Athens and brought hope along with it. Georgia sold out season tickets for the first time in ages. And while Edwards headlined the roster, coach Tom Crean had also drawn a promising — if young — group of talent to the program.

Building through one player’s considerable talent doesn’t work if there’s not a support structure around him. In the end, that proved true for Edwards’ lone collegiate season. Veterans left behind by Mark Fox never quite fit Crean’s more modern and uptempo system, while the talented crop of youngsters he recruited weren’t up to handle a substantial workload. In the end, it left the Bulldogs pumping possessions through Edwards, a reliance that led Crean to overlook his star’s questionable shots and letdowns on the defensive end.

Just as suddenly as hope defined his second season, Crean now faces pressing questions in his third. It’s time for the Bulldogs to progress. Can they do it?


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Georgia Preview

#12 Georgia Bulldogs

Last Season: 16-16 (5-13 in conference) No. 96 KenPom

My Prediction: 10-15 (4-14, 12th in conference)

SEC Media Prediction: 13th in conference

KenPom Projection: 12-13 (6-12 in conference) No. 92

NCAA Basketball: Florida at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

HEAD COACH: Tom Crean | Third Season, 27-37

Before we proceed, I want to be clear: Crean is a very good coach. He’s got a keen eye for modestly rated recruits, blends them with a handful of elite prospects and develops rosters that—after some growing pains—generally win a lot of basketball games. His reputation as a builder, though, comes with a clear demand for patience. It paid off at Marquette, which went to the postseason eight times in nine seasons. And at Indiana, he took a proud program that was in shambles and restored its credibility, making the NCAA tournament four times in five years. (He also won a pair of Big Ten titles.) Ultimately, his undoing in Bloomington was a harder reset than expected. While he wore out his welcome among the Hoosiers, it was easy to see why his model might be optimal for Georgia, whose experience with Fox showed that patience wasn’t something the program lacked. Yet given the results of the Edwards experiment, how much credibility does Crean still have? How will a tolerant administration and apathetic fanbase react if he turns in another mediocre season?

Seat Temp: COOL

georgia 10 year preview 2020

The call for patience stems from a simple rationale: Crean wasn’t handed a juggernaut. Fox performed admirably for nine seasons, but he only cracked the top 40 in KenPom once. Crean gambled on Edwards as a catalyst for his rebuild, but it fizzled when veterans struggled to adapt to a change in approach. Moving forward, the roster is entirely a Crean product, and he’ll own its successes or failures.

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
Anthony Edwards professional 32 81.31% 24.99% 22.40% 24.17%
Rayshaud Hammonds professional 32 68.86% 16.96% 16.85% 16.33%
Jordan Harris graduation 23 35.58% 6.68% 7.48% 6.60%
Tyree Crump graduation 30 46.46% 8.52% 6.99% 8.26%
Amanze Ngumezi transfer 7 8.23% 1.76% 1.29% 1.88%
Donnell Gresham graduation 32 48.85% 6.60% 10.29% 5.94%
Mike Peake transfer 24 16.54% 2.29% 2.31% 2.28%
Rodney Howard transfer 24 13.54% 1.80% 2.43% 1.62%
63.87% 69.60% 70.04% 67.08%

Edwards was supposed to be the spark plug, but he often settled for jumpers instead of thriving as a downhill slasher. Questions about Edwards still persist as he goes through the NBA draft process, but it’s hard to hold a star accountable when there’s no alternative on your bench. The bigger loss for Crean was Rayshaun Hammonds, who ticked off all the boxes for what the coach covets in a combo forward. Yet the junior never flourished in a scheme ideally suited to his strengths. Had he panned out, Crean would have had an alternate route for his offense, and Hammonds would have evolved into a late first-round pick. Obviously, that didn’t work, and Hammonds decided the time had come to move along.

Beyond Edwards and Hammond, Georgia lacked a reliable core. It will miss Tyree Crump, who could find a spark and carry the team offensively in spurts. Jordan Harris had a hard time finding his role despite teasing with potential. And Donnell Gresham provided what was needed: leadership through his experience.

THEN, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Sahvir Wheeler SO PG 31 65.08% 11.47% 55.00% 10.76%
Toumani Camera SO CF 32 59.00% 8.60% 54.20% 8.10%
Tye Fagan JR CG 32 28.69% 5.41% 59.70% 6.86%
Christian Brown SO WING 31 22.92% 4.30% 56.90% 3.71%
Jaykwon Walton SO WING 7 2.92% 0.61% 58.80% 0.55%
Jaxon Etter SO WING 9 1.46% 0.00% 0.00% 0.01%
36.01% 30.39% 29.99%
NCAA Basketball: Florida at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Sahvir Wheeler | SOPHOMORE | POINT GUARD

There aren’t many players on the court who are smaller than Wheeler, who is listed at 5-foot-10 but looks closer to 5-7 or 5-8. Despite his size, Wheeler is a spark plug and relentlessly attacks defenses. His decision-making can improve, but he looks like a difference maker at lead guard.

The remnants of a really good recruiting class also have a chance to shine this season. Toumani Camara is at the top of that list. An athletic and flexible combo forward, the sophomore’s energy offsets raw skill. Aside from complementing Wheeler, he’s big enough to play stretches in the post. On the wing, Jaykwon Walton is an intriguing player who saw limited action a year ago but has all the makings of a guy posed for a break out. If anyone fits the template for Crean’s model of development, it’s Walton. Finally, veteran Tye Fagan has carved out a niche as a rotational ball-handler but doesn’t quite provide a scoring punch.

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Christian Brown | SOPHOMORE | WING

Along with Walton, Christian Brown is another athletic wing who should thrive under Crean’s coaching. His minutes yo-yo’d last season, but the high-energy and athletic wing plays hard and shot the bell well in limited touches. Brown has good size for his position, and while he doesn’t show a great handle, he’s at home in space and can get to the rim. Brown was the highest rated recruit in the 2019 class not named Edwards, and if the Bulldogs are going to put a foot forward, they’ll need Brown to live up to his potential.

AND, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
Fr K.D. Johnson 6'1 190 ★★★★ 88 PG
Fr Josh Taylor 6'9 215 ★★★ 141 POST
So Tyron McMillan 6'9 220 ★★★ 11 POST
Jr Mikal Starks 6'0 185 ★★★ 9 PG
Jr Jonathan Ned 6'8 215 ★★★ 15 POST
Sr PJ Horne 6'6 230 Grad Transfer - POST
Sr Justin Kier 6'4 WING Grad Transfer - WING
Sr Andrew Garcia 6'6 225 Grad Transfer - CF

Without Edwards as a focal point, Crean has to find ways to create his production in aggregate. He’s going to start by adding a second ball-handler in K.D. Johnson, an explosive and physically gifted point guard from Hargrave Academy. That should shore up depth behind Wheeler early on and eventually evolve into a potent tandem that can share the floor. Crean also added JUCO point guard Mikal Starks. So, it’s not unrealistic to think Crean might play lead guards at once. Starks fits with the other two as a physical attacking guard who likes to get to the rim. Crean also plucked combo forward Jonathan Ned from the JUCO ranks, giving him a floor spacer at the four spot.

Crean also added good size to his roster with Josh Taylor, who projects to be a little bit of a role player in the post. Tyrone McMillan has three years of eligibility and should backfill the front court. Neither has film that jumps out, but both are capable of filling out a high-major rotation.

Where Crean’s roster overhaul gets interesting is his activity in the transfer market. This season, Georgia recruited a trio of graduate transfers, and the question is whether Crean is hedging his bets if a talented crop of youngsters don’t improve. P.J. Horne, who arrives from Virginia Tech, wanted to play closer to home and should fit in as an undersized combo forward. The same description fits Stony Brook transfer Andrew Garcia. Finally, there’s former George Mason guard Justin Kier, whose improvement was undermined last season by an injury.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard Sahvir Wheeler K.D. Johnson
(2) Combo Guard Mikal Starks Tye Fagan Jaykwon Walton
(3) Wing Justin Kier Christian Brown
(4) Combo Forward PJ Horne Andrew Garcia Jonathan Ned
(5) Post Toumani Camera Josh Taylor Tyron McMillan

While we know the parts, how they fit is unclear. That uncertainty is one reason the Bulldogs are projected to finish near the bottom of the SEC standings.

Crean’s creative enough offensively to play three lead guards simultaneously. What the plan looks like at wing and combo forward, however, is muddled. Horne and Garcia are similar players vying for minutes with a youngster in Camara who shows promise. The lack of a clear cut option in the post can’t be ignored, either. So, is Crean planning on rolling with an undersized lineup that uses Camara as a small-ball five? Maybe. Ultimately, Georgia’s success hinges on whether Brown and Walton improve enough to make graduate transfers into specialists who allow Crean to throw wonky looks at opposing defenses. If they can’t outplay the older newcomers, it’s probably an ominous sign.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 10-15 | KenPom Projected Record: 6-12

NCAA Basketball: Wichita State at Cincinnati Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 25 Home Columbus State NA W
Nov 29 Home Gardner-Webb 249 W
Dec 4 Home Jacksonville 311 W
Dec 8 Home Montana 155 W
Dec 12 Home Samford 327 W
Dec 19 Home Cincinnati 59 L
Dec 22 Home Northeastern 170 W
avg 211.83 6-1

This is a schedule which screams Crean’s read on his roster. While some school shopped for tough opponents, Georgia is playing its entire non-con slate in Athens. And of those seven games, just one is against a high-major foe. It’s a move made when a roster is young and growing pains are likely. It might be sensible, but it also puts a lot of weight on one quality matchup against Cincinnati.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Dec 30 Home Mississippi State 78 W
Jan 6 Away LSU 37 L
Jan 9 Away Arkansas 54 L
Jan 13 Home Auburn 66 L
Jan 16 Away Ole Miss 42 L
Jan 20 Home Kentucky 11 L
Jan 23 Home Florida 24 L
Jan 27 Away South Carolina 60 L
Jan 30 Home Ole Miss 42 W
Feb 2 Away Auburn 66 L
Feb 6 Home Vanderbilt 126 W
Feb 10 Away Texas A&M 68 L
Feb 13 Away Alabama 46 L
Feb 16 Home Missouri 58 L
Feb 20 Away Florida 24 L
Feb 23 Home LSU 37 L
Feb 27 Home South Carolina 60 W
Mar 3 Away Tennessee 20 L
avg 51.06 4-14

The SEC schedule does the Bulldogs no favors, though. The home-and-home slate pits them against LSU and Florida, both of whom should be near the top of the standings. South Carolina should also be stout, but there’s room to move up against Ole Miss and Auburn. The key game for me is the home game against Auburn, which follows a tough pair of road games. If UGA holds serve at Coleman Coliseum, it’ll be a bit of relief during a daunting eight-game stretch.

OVERVIEW

Is the state of the program as dire as some might think? Probably not. Crean upgraded Georgia’s recruiting, and you can’t ignore his track record. Ideally, the graduate transfers joining the mix supply veteran stability as his foundational class matures.

georgia synergy 2020

That infusion is obvious in the front court. Meanwhile, the JUCO ranks should help him backstop Wheeler at point guard. It’s a bit of a change for Crean, who’s often been willing to live with growing pains and give cover to his players by catching flack from impatient fans. The 2019 group was laden with four-star talent, which usually needs a full year in the program to find its footing. Instead of relying on his developmental prowess, Crean brought in a bevy of players to challenge those youngsters for minutes and roles.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Tournament-Georgia vs Mississippi Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Now, it makes sense to balance raw talent with grit, an approach that could be savvy in the face of a demanding conference schedule. The trick is finding the right balance between letting young players overcome challenges and using veterans as a tool for accountability. And at worst, it might be an acknowledgment from Crean that his transformational recruiting class might not pan out as expected.

Make no mistake, Georgia is a tough job. Fox never elevated it to a perennial contender, but it rarely cratered during his tenure. Sure, there’s talent in nearby Atlanta, but keeping in-state talent home is easier for Indiana than it is for a marginal program like the one in Athens. Early on, Crean managed to overcome that hurdle. What needs to happen is obvious: Young players need to start providing the production the old guard lacked and show improvement defensively.

I believe in Crean’s ability to get this program revved up, but they’re probably another season away.

Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC

Tom Crean isn’t lacking options. There is talent on the roster, even if they didn’t flash a year ago. So, if sophomores find their stride and pick up a few unexpected wins early, the league is fluid enough they could move up a spot or two in the standings.

Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC

The small strengths of the roster a year ago were in the young talent at point guard and combo forward. Then Crean went out and signed two additional point guards and three combo forwards. Were those simply moves to add depth? Or is Crean concerned that development might stall? It explains why it’s so hard to get a handle on this roster.


About the preview: In past years we’ve had a single Google Form where a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick of the entire league schedule game by game. Because the Coronavirus has impacted just about everything, the schedule came out so late we were unable to run through this process. I worked with Matt Harris to get as much of a consensus between our two outcomes of picks (they are still game by game) but in the end these are all MY picks. I’ve tried to include the SEC Media’s predictions and KenPom’s preseason ratings into the preview to set some kind of balance.


GLOSSARY

* - an asterisk denotes a walk-on player

GP - Games Played

%min - percentage of total available minutes played, does not account for time missed due to injury

%ov - offensive team value, simple formula of (%points + %rebounds) - %turnovers/*100, similar to Offensive Rating but places more value on performance to the team

%poss - percentage of team possessions the player is responsible for ending a possession, whether by making a shot, missing a shot not rebounded by the offense or committing a turnover.

%pts - percentage of teams points scored

ts% - true shooting percentage, basically points scored divided by 2x fga +0.44*fta.