ATHENS, Ga. (AP) Tom Crean has had a busy week.
He was inducted into the Marquette Sports Hall of Fame and picked up his first Southeastern Conference victory of the season, all amid criticism on social media and questions about his future as a Georgia men’s basketball coach.
Crean, who spent nine seasons as a coach at Indiana, said it’s not new territory for him and he knows how to handle questions about his job security.
“It’s not the first time I’ve taken this path in life as a coach, and you learn from the experiences,” Crean said this week.
Crean coached five NCAA Tournament teams at Marquette, including the 2003 Final Four team. He had three Sweet 16 appearances among four NCAA teams at Indiana.
Nonetheless, it didn’t end well for him with the Hoosiers.
At Georgia, Crean faces mounting backlash as losses mount in his fourth season and his Bulldogs sit last in the SEC.
Crean admitted feeling relieved after his Bulldogs beat Alabama 82-76 on Tuesday night, becoming the last team to record its first SEC win.
“We just gotta start this thing, we just gotta get it started,” Crean said after the win. “And it happened for us tonight. So there is some relief.
It will take more wins to maintain the feeling of relief. Only a dramatic turnaround can save Georgia (6-14, 1-6 SEC) from its fourth straight season with a losing conference record. The Bulldogs play at Vanderbilt on Saturday.
Crean is 47-63 overall and 15-46 in the SEC. Even for a program that won its last NCAA Tournament game in 2002 and hasn’t made the NCAA tour since 2015, the SEC record is painful. Crean replaced Mark Fox, who was 77-79 in SEC games and 163-133 overall in nine seasons.
Even before beating Alabama, Crean said his team was better than its record.
“At the end of the day, we are closer in many areas than people think,” he said.
Georgian junior Jaxon Etter said Crean remained “as confident as ever”.
“There’s just an urgency to his voice,” Etter said. “There’s an urgency in everyone’s voice like, ‘Look, we have to figure this out. We have to win basketball games if we’re going to do anything special here in Georgia.
If sophomore DA Josh Brooks is looking for a sign that Crean is laying the foundation for success, the win over Alabama provided a rare glimmer of light. Leaving the field, Crean reached the scorer’s table to exchange a high-five with Brooks.
Brooks could not be reached for comment on Thursday.
Georgia’s dismal start to its conference schedule comes as no surprise. The Bulldogs were picked by SEC media to finish last in the league following nine players’ offseason departures through the transfer portal.
The most damaging blows to the Bulldogs’ prospects for this season came when last season’s top two scorers moved to other SEC schools — Sahvir Wheeler to Kentucky and KD Johnson to Auburn. Johnson ranks 13th in the SEC with his average of 13.3 points for No. 1 Auburn. Wheeler leads the SEC with 6.9 assists per game for No. 12 Kentucky.
Even in the new era where transfers are commonplace, the dramatic exodus of players has been devastating. Crean tried to compensate by adding seven transfers, including point guard Aaron Cook from Gonzaga, Jabri Abdur-Rahim from Virginia and Kario Oquendo from Florida Southwestern State.
Even with star rookie Anthony Edwards on the team, the Bulldogs only finished 16-16 overall and 5-13 in the SEC in the 2019-20 season. Edwards was Minnesota’s No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft after one season at Georgia.
Crean said the coronavirus pandemic has robbed him of the opportunity to take full advantage of the recruiting bump expected from having the first draft pick.
“We really never got to go out and recruit on that,” Crean said.
This year’s team lost two starters to season-ending knee injuries. Georgia’s only starter, forward PJ Horne, was injured before the season. Jailyn Ingram averaged 10.7 points and six rebounds in nine games and, according to Crean, may have been the team’s best player before suffering a knee injury in early December.
Crean said his return to Marquette for Sunday’s Club M induction ceremony was “really amazing” and recalled that success doesn’t always come quickly.
“We also had a very difficult start there,” Crean said. “Still, we turned that thing into competing for the league championship and the next year winning the championship and going to the Final Four.”
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