While UGA’s football team is currently in the midst of its best start since 2005, college basketball is just around the corner, so a bye week for the football Dawgs felt like the perfect opportunity to start talking some Georgia basketball.
Last season served as a breakthrough for the SEC in regards to its basketball prestige as the conference sent 5 teams to the NCAA Tournament, with 3 of those teams reaching the Elite 8. Had Kentucky not lost at the buzzer to UNC, half of the Final Four would have been represented by SEC teams (with South Carolina being the other). College basketball analysts are no longer discrediting the league as merely a “football conference”; CBS Sports posited over the summer that the SEC could get as many as 7 teams in this season’s Big Dance.
Which brings me to Georgia. The 2017-2018 campaign will mark year 9 of head coach Mark Fox’s 10-year plan. In my humble opinion, UGA basketball has reached the point where it must reach the NCAA Tournament for this season to be considered a success, or the Dawgs might need to look elsewhere for leadership. Last year’s team returned to the NIT only to be torched at home by the Belmont Bruins. A similar conclusion to this year’s season is simply unacceptable.
Here are some reasons to be optimistic about Georgia’s chances of dancing in March:
Yante Maten. Yante Maten. Yante Maten.
Maten was named Co-SEC Player of the Year in the league’s preseason awards, and he was recently added to the watch list for the Karl Malone Award, which is given annually to the nation’s top power forward. There’s a reason for this: Yante Maten should be hard to guard this year. ESPN projects Maten will average 19.6 ppg, or the 4th highest scoring average in the nation. Last season, Maten was virtually unstoppable when he received the ball in one-on-one situations in the paint, and I expect this season to be no different. He also developed a three-point shot from the top of the key that connected over 48% of the time, and rumor has it that Maten can now make it from other parts of the perimeter as well.
Most likely, teams are going to use zone and help defense to double Maten as much as possible when he gets the ball on the block. The benefactors of such an approach will be Derek Ogbeide and Rayshaun Hammonds, both of whom should serve as viable outlets for Maten when defenses collapse on him. Ogbeide’s numbers have trended up since his freshman season, going from 4 points a game to over 7; this year Derek could easily average close to 10 a game, and he should be able to put up a number of double-doubles considering his rebounding prowess. Hammonds, a 4-star recruit from Gwinnett County, should be able to contribute immediately on offense, especially since opposing teams will be forced to dedicate so much attention to Maten.
Another reason that the Dawgs could land an at-large bid is that their SEC schedule is quite favorable. While UGA does start the conference slate with a New Year’s Eve road game in Lexington, they fortunately only have to play Kentucky once. Georgia plays Texas A&M, Arkansas, Alabama, Vanderbilt and Missouri just once apiece as well; all of these teams were projected to finish ahead of UGA in the conference standings. The Dawgs get two games each with both Tennessee and LSU, both of whom are expected to be SEC bottom dwellers this year. Georgia also plays both South Carolina and Auburn twice, and while the Gamecocks and the Tigers will certainly be tough outs, it could be worse: Florida has to play Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Alabama both home and away.
Speaking of Florida, the Gators should be strong again this season as they return three starters from last year’s team, which was just a few possessions away from reaching the Final Four. The Dawgs do play the Gators in both Athens and Gainesville this season, but that is Georgia’s only home-and-away matchup where UGA could be underdogs in both games.
Here are a few reasons as to why Georgia may go back to the NIT:
Losing J.J. Frazier is going to hurt. Badly. Frazier averaged over 18 points a game last season, or 26% of Georgia’s offense. He was the catalyst that got everything going. Frazier had the ability to completely take over a game on offense as he could score from both the perimeter and around the bucket.
Tyree Crump and Jordan Harris played sporadically as freshmen; they are going to be relied upon heavily as sophomores. I expect both of these youngsters to show improvement on the offensive side of the ball, but I’m not so sure that either of them is ready to start scoring in double-figures. Juwan Parker developed a midrange game last season that saw him average over 9 points a game. Parker could put up similar numbers this year, but it seems unlikely that he will score too much more since his offensive game is somewhat limited. My biggest fear regarding the UGA guards situation is that Crump and Harris will yield too many minutes to Turtle Jackson, whom Fox may play more since he tends to be loyal to his upperclassmen.
If Georgia’s backcourt can’t find a way to make up for the departure of Frazier, the Dawgs may struggle to score over 70 points per contest as they did a year ago. While Maten was predicted to get 19.5 a night by ESPN this year, it should be noted that that is just one point more than he netted last season. Maten was great last season, and he should be great again this year, but when you start getting more than 18 points and nearly 7 boards a game, there’s not a lot of room for improvement on those already impressive numbers.
Fox will need either Crump, Harris or both to score in double-digits if this team doesn’t want to experience a drop-off on offense.
My prediction: Georgia goes 22-11 and earns an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.