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SEC Basketball Preview: Tom Crean is still searching for answers in Athens

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Previewing the No. 14 team in the SEC, the Georgia Bulldogs.

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

Four years ago, Georgia fired Mark Fox, a decision that didn’t stir up strong reactions. The Bulldogs finished 18-15 overall and 7-11 in the SEC, but in Fox’s nine seasons, the program only made two trips to the NCAA tournament. Its best performances — a pair of top-four finishes — came when the SEC bottomed out in 2014 and 2015. Patience was never in short supply, either, at what is obviously a football school.

Determining what you want your ceiling to be matters. The leadership in Athens decided it wanted to elevate it, and Fox’s body of work topped out at moderately successful. So, it moved on.

Change has proven hard.


Georgia Preview

#14 Georgia Bulldogs

Last Season: 14 - 12 (7-11 in conference) No. 95 KenPom

My Prediction: 11 - 20 (3-15, 14th in conference)

The Masses Prediction: 3 - 15, 14th in conference

SEC Media Prediction: 14th in conference

KenPom Projection: 11 - 20 (3-15 in conference) No. 159

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Georgia Athens Banner-Herald-USA TODAY NETWORK via Imagn Content Services, LLC

HEAD COACH: Tom Crean | Fourth Season, 41-49

When Crean came on board, the logic was easy to grasp: hire a coach with a proven track record at rebuilds. That’s not faulty, but Georgia’s a slightly different task than Marquette and Indiana, which are culturally basketball-first institutions. And sure, nearby Atlanta is stocked with plenty of talent, but it’s also crowded with programs from the ACC and SEC jockeying for position.

Coming in after Fox, Crean gambled that he could land the kind of elite talent that only sporadically joined up with his predecessor. Early on, that rationale also reaped good returns in the form of a top-15 recruiting class headlined by Anthony Edwards, a future No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft.

Georgia cratered in Crean’s first season, but the Anthony-led reinforcements arrived for Year 2. Things definitely didn’t go as planned. Despite the raw talent on hand, Georgia finished 96th in KenPom in 2020. And last season, they ran in place to finish 95th.

So much for momentum.

Since that 2019 class, Crean has signed just one four-star player. Meanwhile, the entirety of that foundational class left town. I’m not sure how much Crean’s seat may be warming, though. His past success and Georgia’s patience with Fox could indicate he’s safe. But it has been challenging, and this season certainly ups the degree of difficulty.

Seat Temp: WARMING

georgia bulldogs 10 year preview

Only one trip to the NCAA tournament in over a decade certainly creates room for improvement. Georgia’s never truly bottomed out, but it’s rarely sniffed the bubble. It’s consistently mediocre. Since 2000, it’s only won 10-plus SEC games five times. Should UGA regularly finish in the top four? That’s a stretch, but the school’s athletic budget and proximity to talent mean it should probably be doing better. Which again raises the question: how much time will Crean have to get it humming? Can he?

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
Sahvir Wheeler transfer 26 86.41% 18.07% 17.31% 23.43%
KD Johnson transfer 16 34.64% 10.72% 8.82% 9.93%
Toumani Camara transfer 25 68.04% 15.84% 17.34% 15.66%
Justin Kier transfer 25 74.16% 11.82% 11.61% 12.46%
Tye Fagan transfer 26 55.12% 11.92% 13.25% 10.19%
Andrew Garcia transfer 26 42.49% 11.17% 10.96% 10.25%
Christian Brown transfer 17 18.56% 3.67% 3.40% 3.71%
Jaykwon Walton transfer 2 1.44% 0.10% -0.08% 0.31%
Mikal Starks transfer 18 9.76% 0.20% 0.48% 0.69%
78.12% 83.51% 83.09% 86.63%

I’ve never seen roster turnover quite like this—at least not from a school not based in Lexington. The fact Crean talked PJ Horne into coming back for another season kept this from being a complete housecleaning.

What’s worse is the bulk of the turnover was from players inked in the same class as Edwards. Jaykwon Walton, a four-star prospect, left at mid-year for the junior-college ranks. Christian Brown, another top-100 talent, never developed a reliable jumper or fleshed out a consistent role. He also bailed at semester. Brown chose Tennessee State, and Walton has already committed as part of the Mississippi State’s 2022 class.

To anyone paying attention, those exits weren’t all that surprising. Crean’s recruiting last offseason — heavy on transfers and JUCOs — seemed to foreshadow it. The other departures? Not so much.

Combo forward Toumani Camara and point guard Sahvir Wheeler were huge parts of the Georgia attack. Their consistency helped the Bulldogs exceed meager expectations a year ago. Now, Wheeler is going to suit up for Kentucky, and Camara left for Dayton.

KD Johnson, a bowling ball of energy, left for Auburn. And Tye Fagan, a member of Crean’s first class at Georgia, who provided scoring and defense off the bench, left for Ole Miss. So, if you’re keeping track, Crean will face three of his former players in conference play this season. All in all, the Bulldogs watched 86 percent of their possessions and 83 percent of their scoring go out the door. That’s not ideal in the middle of a rebuild.

THEN, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
PJ Horne G-SR CF 26 70.43% 11.02% 60.20% 11.51%
Jaxon Etter JR WING 20 15.12% 2.33% 73.80% 2.92%
Tyron McMillan JR POST 20 12.82% 1.89% 53.60% 1.42%
Jonathan Ned SR POST 14 8.90% 1.14% 47.90% 1.08%
Josh Taylor SO POST 7 2.11% 0.10% 25.00% 0.00%
21.88% 16.48% 16.93%
NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

P.J. Horne | SENIOR | COMBO FORWARD

By default, Horne is our featured player. Usually, the player we tout is for the hope they inspire, a player who can make the difference and help a team move up in the food chain. And I like Horne. But if he’s the most experienced player you have coming back, you should be a little worried. More than a little.

Horne is an undersized post with only 11 percent usage despite playing almost 70 percent of available minutes. He’s a prime example of low-usage, high-efficiency, posting a 124.9 offensive rating. The question is whether that holds up with more touches flowing his way.

After Horne, the only real contributor was walk-on Jaxon Etter, who provided a spark and consistent shooting in limited action off the bench. Crean has also made a habit of collecting backup big men: Tyron McMillan, Jonathan Ned, and Josh Taylor. McMillan was the only one to play double-digit minutes, and none of those six games were in SEC play. Ned played just 10-plus minutes three times and just once in conference play. So, there’s not a lot of reliable minutes coming back.

AND, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
Fr Christian Wright 6'3 185 ★★★ 209 PG
Fr Camron McDowell 6'5 185 ★★★ 230 WING
Fr Tyrone Baker 6'11 210 ★★★ 261 POST
So Kario Oquendo 6'4 210 JUCO - CG
So Jabri Abdur-Rahim 6'8 210 TRANSFER Virginia CF
Jr Dalen Ridgnal 6'7 200 JUCO - CF
R-Sr Noah Baumann 6'6 210 TRANSFER USC WING
G-Sr Aaron Cook 6'2 185 Grad Transfer Gonzaga CG
G-Sr Braelen Bridges 6'11 240 Grad Transfer UI-Chicago POST
G-Sr Jailyn Ingram 6'7 225 Grad Transfer FAU POST
NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Clemson Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

Jabri Abdur-Rahim | SOPHOMORE | COMBO FORWARD

Jabri Abdur-Rahim is a talented guy, a former top-40 recruit who initially chose Virginia. The son of a former NBA player and All-American, Abdur-Rahim’s pedigree and physical tools made him a fantastic get for Tony Bennett’s program. But there wasn’t a path to early playing time — another reality with the Cavaliers — and it prompted Abdur-Rahim to seek a reboot in almost every sense. Where Bennett grinds the pace and leans hard on his pack line, Crean juices the pace and can run complex, pro-inspired offense. Either way, Jabri will be an essential role guy for Crean this season as the roster needed an influx of talent.

Other than Abdur-Rahim, Georgia is welcoming a lot of newcomers to Athens.

First, let’s talk about the grad transfers. Last year, UGA missed a true post presence. Horne’s a stretch four, and it forced Camara to slide down to the five. Camara’s more at home facing up and has a tool kit based on finesse. He wasn’t a big you wanted fronting a traditional post and holding ground.

UIC transfer Braelen Bridges, an Atlanta native, averaged 19.1 minutes, 9.9 points and 4.8 rebounds for the Flames. Moving home and transferring up proved attractive. Next is Jailyn Ingram, a 6-foot-7 forward from Florida Atlantic, who wasn’t particularly efficient but is using his his sixth-year to flesh out post depth. He’s a Madison, Georgia native who’s started 105 games in his career but was less impactful as the program improved under former Florida Assistant Dusty May.

Nabbing Aaron Cook, who is on his third stop after SIU and Gonzaga, might be one of the better additions. While he was a role player, he saw what a top-tier culture looks like and could try to translate it to roster where continuity and chemistry is being mixed on the fly. He could also be in contention to start.

Noah Bauman is a floor-spacing wing who arrives from USC and spent the first two seasons at San Jose State. He struggled to make a dent with the Trojans and will give it another go in Athens.

Two JUCO transfers are hoping to make an immediate impact, and one to keep an eye on is Daylan Ridgnal, an undersized combo forward accustomed to playing an up-tempo style. Ridgnal, a Kansas City native, could translate quickly as a stretch four. Kario Oquendo is a bigger combo guard who likes to get downhill.

Crean also added three freshman recruits, but no blue chippers. Christian Wright will provide depth at point guard. He has good size and body control for the position, and I think can be a very good player in time. Camron McDowell is an exciting athlete who played for one of the bigger high school programs in Georgia and hopefully can develop his outside game more. And Tyrone Baker is a solid post prospect, but I wouldn’t expect a ton of impact early.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard Aaron Cook Christian Wright
(2) Combo Guard Kario Oquendo Noah Baumann Tyrone Baker
(3) Wing Jabri Abdur-Rahim Camron McDowell Jailyn Ingram
(4) Combo Forward PJ Horne Dalen Ridgnal Josh Taylor
(5) Post Braelen Bridges Tyron McMillan Jonathan Ned

With so many new faces, projecting UGA’s rotation is a tall order. A lot hinges on how Crean manages his most talented pieces. Horne, Rigdnal, and Abdur-Rahim could all serve as capable small-ball fours. But the post position is crowded with Bridges, McMillan, Baker, Taylor, and Ned. That makes eight players vying for time at two positions.

Cook might be the likeliest candidate to start at lead guard in the backcourt, but there’s no clear-cut pecking order among Oquendo, Baumann and McDowell. Abdur-Rahim also makes sense as an option on the wing.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 11-20 | KenPom Projected Record: 11-20

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Virginia Tech Michael Thomas Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 9 Home Florida International 309 W
Nov 13 Away Cincinnati 117 L
Nov 16 Home South Carolina State 350 W
Nov 19 Home Georgia Tech 54 L
Nov 22 Neutral Virginia 45 L
Nov 23 Neutral Providence / Northwestern 85 / 48 L
Nov 28 Home Wofford 126 W
Dec 1 Home Memphis 16.00 L
Dec 7 Home Jacksonville 282 W
Dec 18 Home George Mason 212 W
Dec 20 Home Western Carolina 311 W
Dec 22 Home East Tennessee State 142 W
Dec 29 Home Gardner-Webb 217 W
181.75 8-5

We should know pretty quickly whether this experiment will work. Cincinnati’s starting over under Wes Miller but should also be respectable in the American Athletic Conference. Despite some turmoil last season, the Bearcats went 8-6 in AAC and this profiles as a toss-up game for Georgia.

Georgia Tech should be pretty tough after an NCAA tournament bid, but Josh Pastner is replacing All-ACC post player Moses Wright and his MVP, Jose Alvarado. But Virginia? Memphis? Both should be very good. And George Mason could be a tough out also, as Kim English is doing some things.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Jan 4 Home Texas A&M 78 W
Jan 8 Away Kentucky 17 L
Jan 12 Away Mississippi State 65 L
Jan 15 Home Vanderbilt 79 L
Jan 19 Away Auburn 28 L
Jan 22 Away South Carolina 86 L
Jan 25 Home Alabama 19 L
Jan 29 Away Vanderbilt 79 L
Feb 2 Home Arkansas 15 L
Feb 5 Home Auburn 28 L
Feb 9 Away Florida 25 L
Feb 12 Home South Carolina 86 W
Feb 16 Away LSU 43 L
Feb 19 Home Ole Miss 57 W
Feb 22 Away Texas A&M 78 L
Feb 26 Home Florida 25 L
Mar 1 Home Tennessee 13 L
Mar 5 Away Missouri 96 L
avg 50.94 3-15

If there’s good news, it’s that Georgia’s conference schedule breaks its way. Home-and-homes against South Carolina, Texas A&M, and Vanderbilt—all of whom might be near the bottom of the standings—certainly help. Florida and Auburn are well stocked but also lost some key pieces. A home game against Vandy might serve as a swing game. A win might put them on a path toward overachieving. After that, four of their next five come against Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn and Florida.

OVERVIEW

Maybe the first couple years of Crean’s rebuild were bumpier than expected, but the Bulldogs were making progress. Then everyone left.

Georgia would not have been a lock for the NCAA tournament with Wheeler or Camara still on the roster, but adding a couple of transfers to go with them might have put the program in the bubble discussion. At worst, they’d be in line for a .500 finish in SEC play. Those modest goals suddenly look unrealistic.

tennessee synergy 2020

Horne and three reserve bigs isn’t the kind of core you’d expect at this point, and it’s nowhere near enough to vault up the standings.

Forced to operate in scramble mode, I’m not sure Crean had much of a blueprint to work with. If you look over these additions, it’s hard to find obvious candidates to backfill so much production.

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

Is it Horne? The guy who used up just 8.1 percent of UGA’s total team possessions last year? Surely it should be a newcomer, but the incoming transfer with the most accolades barely got off the bench for Virginia last year.

The two JUCO transfers, Dalen Ridgnal and Kario Oquendo, both put up good numbers last year, but when was the last time you remember a JUCO transfer coming in to play at an all-league level?

Crean’s best teams at Marquette and Indiana had multiple pros on the roster, and this looks like a collection of nice college players. No one would typically be the focal point of a scouting report. Then again, maybe that’s it? Perhaps the plan is to have as many decent guys as you can have and let them run... and hope for the best.

If Crean has proven anything over the years, he’s not afraid to ratchet up the tempo and let guys play through mistakes. With the combination of experience on the roster, with a couple of young and talented pieces... maybe this experiment can work? Color me skeptical.

Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC

Expectations can’t get much lower. Each win means a greater chance the program avoids the cellar. And since there is a ton of turnover in the league overall, this might be a season where experience and tempo help you steal more was than you expect. If the Dawgs approach respectability, it’s enough to inspire hope that the rebuild can get back on talent.

Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC

You can’t escape the feeling that Crean’s scrambling more than he should be at this point in his time leading the program. Crean’s shown he can develop undervalued three-star talent, but this roster might even be short on those kinds of players. After Horne and Abdur-Rahim, this is a collection of average up-transfers and no sure-fire NBA prospects. It’s almost impossible to imagine Georgia being a threat.


About the preview: a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick for the entire league schedule game by game. Because these are game by game picks, they often tend to be a bit of a rosier picture of each teams potential. Each rep’s picks are reflected in “the Masses” picks. Included in “the Masses” are various SEC media members who made picks at my request also.

If you’d like to submit your picks, click here for the Google Form we used.


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.