A general view of the Georgia Bulldogs' basketball game against the South Carolina Gamecocks at Stegeman Coliseum on January 4, 2017 in Athens, Georgia. (Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images)

Men's Basketball

Texas, Georgia meet on the basketball court this time in Big 12/SEC Challenge

Georgia's Tom Crean faces the same challenge as UT's Shaka Smart: how to get football fans into basketball

Posted January 25th, 2019

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Story highlights
  • As for the Big 12/SEC Challenge, Calipari said, “To play this at this time of the year, I’m not for it.”
  • Longhorns, Bulldogs look like an even match in human, historic terms.
  • Crean on the crowds: “I didn’t know we’d have the sellouts that we’ve had at this point.”

Nobody would dispute Texas and Georgia’s dominance as football schools. Always have been, always will be. The clash that the two schools staged in the Sugar Bowl was every bit what you’d expect from two storied programs.

Think football isn’t big? When the mascots Bevo XV and Uga X got together at the Superdome, they sparked an internet frenzy.

Try being the men’s basketball coach, though.

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At least the Longhorns enjoyed success under coaches Tom Penders and Rick Barnes. T.J. Ford headlined a Final Four team and Kevin Durant is a NBA superstar in a league sprinkled with Longhorns.

Georgia coach Mark Fox was 163-133 the last nine seasons, but the program really wasn’t going anywhere. The school ranked 13th in attendance in the 14-team SEC. Along came Tom Crean, who’s trying to energize a Georgia fan base that’s still trying to shake off UT’s 28-21 win in New Orleans.

Georgia head coach Tom Crean directs his team from the sideline during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Kentucky Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019, in Athens, Ga. Kentucky won 69-49. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Texas and Georgia meet on the hardwood at 1 p.m. Saturday in the Big 12/SEC Challenge, a made-for-TV event aimed at generating attention for both leagues.

PREVIEW: Big 12/SEC Challenge, Texas at Georgia, 1 p.m. Saturday, Athens, Ga.

Crean, the hyper-energetic 52-year-old who once led Indiana, sees a fan base that wants to be every bit as good in basketball as Georgia is between the hedges.

“When you really look at the way people feel about football and you look at the way they support it and support the other sports, it all comes down to the passion of the fan base,” Crean said. “I don’t think there’s any question they want to have a successful basketball program and they enjoy basketball.”

The Big 12 is 3-1-1 overall in the previous five years of this event. Some still don’t see the point of playing in late January, though.

“To play this at this time of the year, I’m not for it,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said on Thursday. His team will host No. 9 Kansas. “This league is hard enough, we don’t need anything in the middle to say, Wow this will show how good we are or how good they are. I don’t agree with it.”

On paper, it looks like a fairly even matchup in Athens, both in human and historic terms.

Georgia (9-9, 1-5 SEC) has struggled in tight games. Crean’s bunch is coming off a 92-82 loss to No. 25 LSU on Wednesday.

“They’ve got a talented team coming off a tough game,” UT coach Shaka Smart said. “For us, it’s a chance to get back in the win column, which is where we want to be building momentum going forward.”

Texas (11-8, 3-4 Big 12) has lost four of its last five despite having the ball in the final seconds for either game-tying or game-winning scenarios in three of those losses.

Neither school has busted anyone’s bracket in recent years. Georgia’s last NCAA Tournament win came in 2002, and that was later vacated due to NCAA rule violations. The Bulldogs’ last “official” tournament win came in 1996. Texas hasn’t won an NCAA game since Cam Ridley’s 2014 scoop-and-score against Arizona State in the first round.

So perhaps it makes sense to pair these schools against each other, as opposed to a more eyebrow-raising matchup. Nobody thought Tennessee vs. Texas would be appealing? Or Texas A&M vs. Texas in either Austin or College Station?

Crean has been a marketing dynamo during his first year. The Athletic detailed how he dropped a ceremonial puck at Georgia’s club hockey game. The coach also meets students in the dorms and tried to win over fans like any good politician.

“I thought we’d get good crowds,” Crean said. “I didn’t know we’d have the sellouts that we’ve had at this point.”

Before the season started, Georgia announced the Florida and Kentucky games were sold out. Two days later, the Texas game was sold out. The Bulldogs have sold out seven home games so far this season at Stegeman Coliseum (capacity 10,523).

The 2002-03 season was the year nine Georgia games were sold out. That mark is now in jeopardy.

Texas has an announced average attendance of 9,240 this season, a number that’s probably laughable to those who came to the December non-conference games. The Erwin Center’s listed capacity for basketball is 16,540.

The school has already announced plans to build a new on-campus arena that will hold more than 10,000. The as-yet-unnamed venue is scheduled to open for the 2021-22 season.

Georgia is getting fans to come. Now, it’s up to Crean to make sure they’ll want to come back for a sport that normally divides the only two seasons that matter — football and spring football.

“The next step is helping us get through these situations in games and understand the momentum of the game and how the crowd can help with that, the feel of the game,” Crean said.

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com.

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