Losing Jonas Hayes was a blow to Georgia, and to Tom Crean. There’s no sugar-coating that. Crean acted as if he wanted the guy who’d become the best thing about Georgia basketball to stay, which shows that the new man is no dummy. He and Hayes went out recruiting together, prompting Crean to say in a statement released Monday, “I became a big fan.”
There’s no shame in losing Hayes to Xavier, which is a bigger and better basketball program and has a strong record in rewarding its assistants. (Its three most recent head coaches – Sean Miller, Chris Mack and now Travis Steele – were in-house promotions.) That’s a step-up job that would have been hard to turn down, and Hayes didn’t. He’ll do well there. He’d do well anywhere. To reiterate: He’s a rising star.
Crean has hired only one assistant – Chad Dollar, who knows the area and the industry. He’s the son of Don Dollar, the legendary Douglass High coach. His brother is Cameron Dollar, who filled in for the injured Tyus Edney in UCLA’s victory over Arkansas in the 1995 NCAA title game. (Jim Harrick was the Bruins’ coach.) Chad Dollar has worked at Georgia Southern, at LSU under John Brady, at Georgia Tech under Brian Gregory and most recently under Bruce Pearl at Auburn.
In Georgia’s announcement of Dollar’s hire, he was quoted as saying he’s “looking forward to seeing … high school and AAU coaches whom I know both from when I was playing and in my career as a coach.” That latter part – the AAU bit – has to be music to the ears of Georgia basketball fans who have long wearied of seeing the biggest talents leave the state.
To wit: Collin Sexton of Pebblebrook, who led Alabama to the NCAA tournament and who’ll be a lottery pick. Also: Wendell Carter Jr. of Pace Academy, who spent his freshman season at Duke and who figures to be a lottery pick if he decides to leave, which everyone figures he will. Also: M.J. Walker of Jonesboro, who as a freshman became a rotational player for Florida State, which reached the Elite Eight.
And now: E.J. Montgomery of Wheeler, who announced Monday that he’ll sign with Kentucky. Montgomery is the state’s highest-rated player and is ranked No. 12 nationally. He’s leaving, too. Pretty much everybody leaves, which is why Fox worked nine years without a breakthrough and Gregory spent five seasons at Tech without even sniffing the Big Dance. There have been exceptions – namely, Georgia freshman Rayshaun Hammonds – but Montgomery is just the latest in a long, long line.
If you’re Crean – or if you’re Tech’s Josh Pastner – you cannot consistently stock a Top 25 team with players who hail from out of state. As they say in tennis, that’s running around your backhand. The belief was that Pastner, who came from Memphis carrying the reputation of being a demon recruiter but a so-so tactician, would be able to sell his program to Georgia prospects. With the exception of Evan Cole of South Forsyth, all his signees to date have been out-of-staters. (Josh Okogie of Shiloh High committed to Tech before Gregory was fired.)
If you’re Georgia, you’re thrilled that Chad Dollar was the lead recruiter on Okogie, though it must be noted that Okogie wasn’t a big name exiting high school. The outflow of big names are the reason the only area program to have graced the NCAA tournament the past three years is Georgia State. (Lots of people missed on D’Marcus Simonds of Buford; Ron Hunter did not.)
Come Tuesday morning, the beat went on. Ashton Hagans, the 5-star junior from Covington’s Newton High, announced that he, too, had committed to Kentucky. Hagans was briefly the highest-rated player ever to pledge himself to Fox’s Georgia – Hayes was the lead recruiter; Trey Thompkins, Hagans’ cousin, played under Fox – but backed off when it became clear a regime change was coming. It would have been too much to expect Crean, even with Hayes then at his side, to build a relationship that quickly, but there’s a chance Crean will be coaching against Hagans next season.
Some around Hagans have floated the notion of him reclassifying, which means skipping his senior year and becoming college-eligible this fall. That would be a fine howdy-do to the new Georgia coach – to see the best in-state players from both the classes of 2018 and 2019 wearing Big Blue. (Montgomery committed just after Kentucky’s Kevin Knox announced he was leaving for the NBA; Hagans followed suit after Shai Gilgeous-Alexander made a similar declaration. Recruits do pay attention.)
That’s the ongoing reality that Georgia’s new coach must buck, and he’ll have to do it without Jonas Hayes. In almost every way, Crean was the sort of guy the Bulldogs needed, but recruiting is always where the rubber meets the road. Crean is a solid tactician, at least on offense, who’ll be an ardent promoter for a program that has never been well-promoted. If he can hook the best Georgia players, he can win big. If not, he can’t and won’t.