Before making his way to Stegeman Coliseum, Kentucky head coach John Calipari bought a slice of pizza at Little Italy and walked around downtown Athens. He took in the area, drove around campus and said Georgia is an unbelievable school that represents “what college is about.”
It’s just one of the reasons why he thinks the Georgia men’s basketball coaching job is one of the second or third best jobs in the SEC. He also believes head coach Tom Crean is a perfect match and will continue to guide his program in the right direction.
“I think Tom will do a great job. I know it,” Calipari said. “I’ve known him for years. He’s a great basketball coach, great person. [He] represents this school and what this school’s about in a great way.”
But on the court Tuesday, Kentucky came away with the win. The Wildcats dictated proceedings in the second half and outscored the Bulldogs 47-32. Kentucky outrebounded Georgia 23-12 and shot over 58% from the field in the second half. Most importantly, the youth of Crean’s team was put on display once again.
Georgia had 10 new players suit up in the first SEC game of their careers. They went into halftime with a 37-31 lead and a considerable amount of momentum. The Bulldogs played just the way they wanted to, limiting Kentucky’s physicality and making some key shots. But in the second half, it got quiet. The offense wasn’t effective and it was even more muted on defense — no one was communicating.
“We were not talking as a team, including me,” junior Rayshaun Hammonds said. “All the guards and the big men were not talking. We just got to get better with doing that. We need to lock in from now on.”
It wasn’t quiet in the stands, however. Over 10,000 fans piled into Stegeman and the affair wasn’t devoid of famous faces. Georgia football head coach Kirby Smart, Atlanta Hawks point guard Trae Young and rapper Quavo were all in attendance, but the noise came from the rest of the crowd.
Students lined up by the hundreds more than two hours before tipoff and brought energy even when the game seemed out of reach. Senior Jordan Harris said it was the loudest he’s ever heard Stegeman before.
“I want to thank the fans personally from the team,” Harris said. “They really showed up and had an impact tonight. We just let the game slip away.”
Nonetheless, Crean said he loved the attention the game was getting from the primetime TV coverage to the electric environment. He said he was going to be disappointed because he was unable to give the crowd a win, but knew they were important for the basketball culture he’s building.
Crean has a track record of building programs. He turned Marquette into a successful team in three seasons and did the same with Indiana in four. He knows what it takes to trend upward, and that directly involves the environment around the team. He saw the potential of the atmosphere on Tuesday and hopes to see it more often.
“Part of building the program is not to have it just when Kentucky comes or coming off a great win like we had [against Memphis], it's getting it more consistent,” Crean said. “I hope that's going to be the next step for us because our fans have been unbelievable this year.”