As the senior released the ball, the freshman raised his arms in celebration.
He held them there, watching the orange sphere first rise, then descend toward the basket. As the net swished and the crowd roared, the senior joined the freshman in the triumphant pose, both running back on defense with arms held high.
Later that night following a 93-81 win, they sat at the podium and fielded questions from reporters. They complimented each other, the younger referring to the older as his “Big brother” and the senior calling the rookie “my son.”
The freshman is highly-touted recruit Anthony Edwards, the senior Tyree Crump, the shooter with no trace of a conscience. This moment from the team’s opening scrimmage against Valdosta State represents more than just three points: it signifies a blend of old and new that will have to carry the Bulldogs through this season.
Bonding with the new faces
The Bulldogs return just five players from last season’s team: Crump, Jordan Harris (who is ineligible until Dec. 20), Rayshaun Hammonds, Amanze Ngumezi and Tye Fagan. That means 10 newcomers: nine freshmen and Donnell Gresham, a graduate transfer from Northeastern.
That also means lots of new faces to learn. Hammonds said it took him about a week to learn all the new guys’ names when the team returned in the summer, but it took even longer to get used to seeing them on the court instead of former players Nic Claxton and Derek Ogbeide, among others.
On the court, the bonding process began right away. But that wasn’t enough: the team spent time together constantly off the court, going to dinner, bowling and, more recently, going to see the new movie “Joker” (“It was kind of weird,” Hammonds added).
However, there’s a slight problem: the freshmen don’t have cars. That’s where Crump and the other veterans come in.
“We try to take them everywhere and just give them a little talk, tell them the right thing to do,” Crump said this week. “They can take it and run with it a long way.”
This team bonding isn’t just an excuse to hang out and get away from the pressures of school and practice for a while. It also pays dividends on the court.
On Oct. 25, the Bulldogs traveled to face Charlotte in their second and final exhibition game before the season opener. The game was nip-and-tuck all the way, but Georgia closed strong with a 12-1 run to take the victory by a score of 77-69.
“That’s when we showed chemistry,” Crump said. “That’s when we showed how we’ve been hanging out with each other for so long. We came in together as one. That’s what you need when you’ve got a young team and you’re on the road like that.”
Glimpses of potential
Charlotte saw the Bulldogs tested in a close game for the first time. In the first exhibition a week earlier against Valdosta State, they started slow but pulled away, winning 93-81.
When he met with the media the day before the game, head coach Tom Crean revealed just how “nerve-wracking” it can be coaching a team with this many new faces. He said he wakes up at least an hour early most days, his mind racing about how to get the most out of his team.
Among other things, he said his players needed to develop leadership, communicate with each other and learn how hard they have to play for extended periods.
“There’s no question it’s a huge challenge, you know, rebuilding a program, refurbishing, however you want to look at it that’s a challenge,” Crean said. “But we’ve got to take it as an opportunity, and that’s how I view it.”
It was far from a perfect game, but that Oct. 18 matchup with the Blazers showed glimpses of what this team could become if the old and new continue to work together.
Crump found Edwards for a layup on an inbounds play. Later, Edwards made a cross-court pass to Fagan who finished with a driving layup. Hammonds and freshman Toumani Camara forced a steal after combining on a double team.
Still, there were plenty of mistakes. Edwards turned the ball over four times in the first half, contributing to a total of 13 in the first 20 minutes. For the game, the Bulldogs turned it over 25 times, continuing an issue that plagued them last season.
Crump said he noticed Edwards with his head down early in the game, perhaps feeling the pressure of playing in front of the home crowd for the first time. That’s when the veteran that Edwards described after the game as his big brother came to him with a message.
“My vet Tyree Crump was like ‘Play your game, play your game,’” Edwards said. “I was trying to get the feel for the game. When I came in, I was like, ‘I’m just fixing to do me.’”
But the youth movement was impossible to ignore despite the mistakes. Edwards led the team in points with 18, Camara led in assists with six and Sahvir Wheeler, listed at a dubious 5-foot-10, tied for the rebounding lead with Edwards with seven. Not bad for the group that Crump said oozes swag, something that was missing a season ago.
Crean noted the team still has a long way to go in terms of developing roles. As he said, the freshmen have to earn their spot and any role expansion they might desire. That starts with understanding the finer points of Crean’s offense: spacing and moving without the ball.
“Some of our errors were (when) we’re trying to make plays that really aren’t there, you know, even though we’re trying to make it for the teammates,” Crean said. “So you don’t want to stifle on selfishness, but we can’t have reckless creativity. We’ve got to have fundamental creativity.”
The team fared well against Valdosta State and Charlotte, but those were just exhibitions. The lights came on for real on Nov. 5 with the season opener, at home against the Western Carolina Catamounts.
The day before the game, Crean described his mood as “apprehensive.” The Catamounts returned a majority of their production from last season, including post player Carlos Dotson who would match up with a Georgia group lacking in size.
Crean lamented the team’s performance in practice, saying that sometimes the concentration and focus were a bit lacking. The freshmen, and the older players too, are still in the process of developing the mental toughness and competitiveness that Crean wants to see.
“When you’re starting with a lot of young guys like we are, 10 newcomers, nine freshmen, seven scholarship freshmen, you’re starting in a very low place,” Crean said. “Whatever mental toughness they had, whatever playing to win value they had coming up, it gets ratcheted up big time at a level like this. So you’ve got to be able to ratchet it up in practice and get them to try to understand what that is.”
One thing Crean doesn’t have to teach quite as much this year is his offense. While everyone on the team last year was new to the system, this year he has five players that have been in the program for over a year and can help impart their wisdom on the new Bulldogs.
“That takes a lot of pressure off Coach Crean because he knows that he’s got five vets that can help with the offense,” Crump said. “He won’t always have to keep repeating himself.”
The first game that counts saw three returners (Hammonds, Crump and Ngumezi) and two newcomers (Gresham and Edwards) in the starting lineup. The Bulldogs trailed at halftime but Edwards showed a great example of his maturity beyond his years.
He started cold with his jumpshot, hitting just one of his first six shots. He then made an effort to change his approach and drive to the basket more, drawing fouls in the process. Despite shooting just 3-of-9 in the first half, he led the team at halftime with 12 points.
“When you’re that young, you’ve got to get better during the game,” Crean said. “Recognize what the game has given you, recognize the decisions that need to be made. The hardest thing for young players is to play at a pace, understand the speed of the game, to not settle inside of that.”
Crean made a change starting the second half down one, inserting Wheeler into the lineup in place of Gresham. The little guy sparked the team early in the half, turning a 38-37 deficit into a 46-43 lead with three dazzling driving layups, along with an assist on a Crump 3-pointer.
Crean and Edwards spoke glowingly after the game about Wheeler’s ability to change the speed and dynamic of the contest. After point guard play was such a struggle a season ago, the Bulldogs might have found something in the freshman from Houston who constantly visits with the senior Crump to talk ball.
“I tell people every day, ‘Listen, y’all are going to have a problem guarding number 15, that boy’s a problem,’” Edwards said. “I feel like Sahvir thinks he’s 6-4 the way he attacks the rim. Him just having confidence in himself, that’s what matters.”
Edwards himself saw his confidence pick up down the stretch. He checked back in with 10:01 remaining and Georgia up 57-55. He answered a Catamount 3-pointer with one of his own to put the Bulldogs up 60-58, assisted on the next two baskets and then hit two more 3-pointers of his own to push the lead to 71-63.
Overall, the Bulldogs ended on a 34-17 run after Edwards checked in, earning a 91-72 victory with veterans and newcomers alike chipping in as well.
After the game, Wheeler attributed a good portion of the strong finish to the connection among the nine freshmen, something he said he’s never been part of.
“We’re truly like brothers,” Wheeler said. “We truly love each other, care for each other. We tell each other how to get better, we correct each other.”
Wheeler then gave an example that mirrored something that happened against Valdosta State. After Crump made a 3-pointer following an assist from Edwards, the pair smiled at each other and high-fived while running back on defense to defend the newly-extended lead.
Overall, Edwards graded the team’s performance as a B or B-minus. In order for this team to eventually work up to an A, the veterans and the newcomers must continue to work together in harmony both on and off the court.