If fans suited up, Tom Crean would have a pretty formidable squad next season. Georgia’s new basketball coach has been relentless in introducing himself to a Georgia fan base preoccupied with spring football and seemingly everything else but a sport that’s over six months away. He’s reached out to students, fired up the massive G-Day crowd, and taken advantage of nearly every opportunity to spread his enthusiasm for the future of Georgia basketball. It’s been impressive to watch him work, and I think he’s been fairly successful.
As every Georgia coach has discovered, recruiting players to Athens can be as difficult – perhaps moreso – than getting Georgia fans to think basketball in April and May. The elite signings have been few and far between (Jumaine Jones, Trey Thompkins, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope), and coaches more often have had to rely on sleeper prospects who overachieved: Gaines, Hayes, Maten, and Frazier. Sometimes it’s worked, but we know that it hasn’t been a consistent winning formula to get the team into the NCAA Tournament or to keep coaches around for very long.
Crean, like Mark Fox and the rest of his predecessors, will sink or swim based on his ability to bring in players. First things first: we’ll worry about things like player development and in-game strategy when the basic raw materials are in place. That hasn’t happened often at Georgia. If you go by the composite class rankings on 24/7, Fox never had a class rated higher than 6th in the SEC. Over half were 9th or worse. (Think football recruiting rankings are unpredictable? Fox’s highest-rated recruiting class in 2016 contained Crump, Harris, and Diatta. His lowest-rated class, the 2014 group that was rated dead-last in the SEC, featured a guy named Maten.)
That’s not really a knock on Fox – it’s not as if Georgia recruiting fell off a cliff. It was never strong to begin with. Fox, like those before him, just wasn’t able to overcome that legacy. Can Crean?
Turning around Georgia’s recruiting fortunes starts with the head coach, and Crean has both the energy and track record to at least have a shot. He has high name recognition and can point to some high-profile protégés in the NBA. Crean has pulled recruits from the Atlanta area before, but, as with Fox, Georgia is not exactly his home turf. For real local impact, coaches rely on their staff. Fox brought in Yasir Rosemond and later Jonas Hayes for that impact. Hayes in particular began to show some results, and Georgia finally landed a series of blue-chip commitments – just in time to change coaches.
Crean’s assembled an impressive staff with local recruiting in mind. Chad Dollar is an Atlanta native with a family legacy in Atlanta basketball. He’s coached in the SEC and at Tech. Amir Abdur-Rahim is cut from the same cloth: an Atlanta native with SEC (and, yes, Tech) experience. Enticing Abdur-Rahim to leave Texas A&M was considered a nice little coup, and he became the program’s highest-paid assistant in the process. Crean augmented those hires with Joe Scott who has Division I head coaching experience and is considered a solid tactician.
It’s going to take a while to gain some traction now that the staff is in place. Two blue-chip local prospects who considered Georgia, E.J. Montgomery and Ashton Hagans (a former Georgia/Fox commitment), are headed to Kentucky. Crean did notch his first recruiting win – combo guard Tye Fagan chose Georgia in the spring signing period over Ole Miss and others. Fagan will be looked to right away to bolster an offense that Crean expects to be more aggressive from outside.
Fagan aside, the new staff’s recruiting efforts will largely turn to 2019 and beyond. There’s a lot of ground to make up as relationships with prospects, schools, and communities can take years to develop. Crean’s name recognition and the familiarity of Abdur-Rahim and Dollar should help to speed that process along. His message will be a common one for programs without much recent success: come start something. “There’s plenty of room for statues,” as Crean put it. That challenge doesn’t always resonate, but when it does, the results can transform a program.