ATHENS, Ga. (AP)Football rules the athletic landscape at Georgia.
It would take a superhero to swipe away some of that attention.
Enter the Ant Man.
Stopping off in Athens for a one-season layover on his way to the NBA, Anthony Edwards has readily accepted an enormous challenge:
Make basketball relevant at the home of the Dawgs.
”It’s just a great place, man,” Edwards said. ”I felt the atmosphere and was like, `This is where I need to be.”’
Surprising words from a 6-foot-5 guard who is projected as one of the top picks – perhaps even No. 1 – in next year’s NBA draft.
He had his choice of blue-blood programs coming out of high school in Atlanta, including Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina.
Instead, Ant Man went with a team that lost 21 games last season – including a dismal 2-16 mark in the Southeastern Conference.
A school where football is king.
”I thought he was playing with me,” said senior Tyree Crump, who helped recruit Edwards and developed an instant rapport with him. ”He was like, `No, I’m really coming to Georgia.’ That’s what we needed.”
Second-year coach Tom Crean also knew how important it was to land a player of Edwards’ caliber.
Not just for what he could do on the court, but how he would change the perception of Georgia basketball for potential recruits in the years to come.
”There’s no question it’s a huge thing,” Crean said. ”It made being at Georgia cool.”
With the NBA beckoning, Edwards’ time with the Bulldogs will surely be short.
After nine games, it’s not yet clear how lasting his mark will be on Georgia basketball.
Ant Man leads the team in scoring with a nearly 20-point average, but he’s not surrounded by as much talent as he would have been with the Jayhawks or the Wildcats or the Tar Heels.
Georgia (6-3) lost by 19 points to Dayton and is coming off a 20-point blowout at Arizona State. The Bulldogs’ other setback was to No. 15 Michigan State, but Edwards gave a tantalizing glimpse of his potential in that one, scoring 33 of his 37 points in the second half with a barrage of contested 3-pointers.
Edwards doesn’t want to be a one-man team. He tries to get those around him involved in the offense, a trait that has drawn some pushback from his coach.
”He needs to come in every day with an attack mentality,” Crean said. ”You’ve got to take what the defense gives you but sometimes, when you’re talented like that, you have to attack a little bit more.”
Though Edwards’ signing led to a boost in ticket sales for the basketball team, there’s no doubt that football still dominates on this campus – a gap that has only widened with Georgia making three straight appearances in the SEC championship game and climbing to the brink of a national title during the 2017 season.
Georgia was a powerhouse in women’s hoops under long-time coach Andy Landers, but the men’s program has recorded far fewer highlights.
The Bulldogs are largely known as the school where Dominique Wilkins played for three seasons in the early 1980s, launching his high-flying, Hall of Fame career.
Wilkins retired from the NBA two years before Edwards was born.
”I don’t really know about him that much,” the freshman said, a bit sheepishly. ”I hear people talk about his dunks and stuff, but other than that I don’t really know about him.”
Georgia’s lone Final Four appearance came in 1983, the year after Wilkins left for the NBA, but the Bulldogs became a mere afterthought when N.C. State won the title with its stunning upset of Houston’s Phi Slamma Jamma. Few remember the Wolfpack beating Georgia 67-60 in the semifinals.
The most recent flirtation with greatness came under Jim Harrick nearly two decades ago, only to end in disgrace. An academic fraud scandal – epitomized by a ludicrously easy class taught by the coach’s son – brought down Harrick and left the Bulldogs reeling on a rebuilding path that largely continues to this day.
Since Harrick was fired in 2003, Georgia has made only three appearances in the NCAA tournament – each a one-and-done showing.
Crean is hoping to reap the benefits of Edwards’ signing long after he’s gone. The state of Georgia has turned out an enormous amount of high school talent, but most players decided to play elsewhere. Finally, there’s someone Crean can point to the next time he’s trying to sign a local five-star prospect.
”When you have an Anthony Edwards who comes in like that, and he’s willing to cast his lot with you … that says a lot,” Crean said. ”It can pay off for decades.”
Like most 18-year-olds, Edwards is focused on more immediate goals.
He’s working hard on his game, even if means staying on the court late into the night to get in some extra shooting. He wants to help the Bulldogs win this season. He wants to get ready for the NBA.
”I don’t really feel any pressure,” Edwards said. ”I just feel like this is what I do. I love it. I’m here.”
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