Georgia struggles once again to put away a lesser opponent

Texas A&M-Corpus Christi’s (TAMCC) Joseph Kilgore tried to tie the game at 68 with a last-second three-point attempt, but fortunately for Coach Mark Fox’s sanity he missed, which was surprising considering Kilgore basically made everything he tossed up in the second half as he scored 20 of his game-high 22 points.

In a game in which Georgia held leads of 19-2 and 27-8, the Dawgs found themselves once again fighting for their lives against a mediocre mid-major team late into the second half.  The Islanders came into the season without the services of its senior point guard Ehab Amin, who averaged over 18 points a game last year as well as leading the nation in steals.  I shudder to think what the outcome of today’s contest might have been had Amin not been injured.  TAMCC, a team that Ken Pomeroy deems to be 256th in the nation, nearly upset Mark Fox’s team with three freshmen in its starting lineup.

UGA got it’s third win of the season to push its record to 3-0 on the year, but it was not pretty.  In todays’ 68-65 victory, the Dawgs turned the ball over 24 times in a game that featured a combined 43 turnovers by both teams.  TAMCC capitalized on the Dawgs’ carelessness as they ended up with 28 points off of the UGA mishaps.  After shooting only 25% prior to the intermission, the Islanders hit nearly 60% of their attempts in the second half.

Even though we are just three games into the young season, it’s hard to determine this Georgia team’s identity.  At first glance, the Dawgs look like a team that should be able to dominate the paint night in-night out with its imposing frontline of Yante Maten, Rayshaun Hammonds and Derek Ogbeide.  For some reason though, UGA is struggling to take advantage of its bigs.  Today, many of Georgia’s turnovers were a result of sloppy entry passes; when the ball did make it in there, UGA’s big men struggled to get the ball up to the glass.

Yante Maten led the way on offense with 19 points to go with 13 rebounds for his 3rd double-double in as many games, but his effort was overshadowed by his game-high 7 turnovers.  The TAMCC Islanders swarmed Maten whenever he received the ball inside, and Yante did not handle the pressure well.  Maten either was indecisive, which resulted in him being double- and triple-teamed, or he tried to force passes through the lane that had no business being attempted.

Compounding UGA’s problem of not being able to force its will in the paint on offense is the Dawgs’s proclivity for putting up shots from beyond the arc at a high rate.  Georgia has taken over 20 three-pointers in each of its first three games, and that feels like far too many perimeter shots for a team that is shooting just 31% from long range.  The Dawgs shot 23% from the three-point line this afternoon; Tyree Crump made only 1 of his 8 attempts.

Aside from Maten’s 19 points, the only other Bulldog to finish in double-figures was the freshman Hammonds, who netted 15 points, including a pair of three-pointers.  Had Fox not been able to sign Hammonds, this team might have struggled to end the year with a winning record.  The UGA freshman is clearly Georgia’s second most important player, and he may eventually become the go-to guy in crunch time this season as he seems to be the best player on this squad at creating his own shot.

Georgia got all it could handle earlier this week from USC Upstate, a team that Pomeroy ranks 280th.  I wanted to label that game as an early season anomaly, but after watching today’s contest I’m starting to worry that it’s closer to the norm than I could have possibly anticipated.  Mark Fox lauded this year’s team as his deepest and most talented yet, but so far they haven’t played that way.  Georgia heads out to California this week to take part in the Wooden Classic.  Their first round opponent, Cal State-Fullerton, is another mid-major opponent, but they will be better than anyone UGA’s faced thus far.  Should the Dawgs get by CSF they will most likely see the the defensived-minded San Diego State Aztecs in the second round, where Fox’s team could be in store for quite the reality check.

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Georgia squeaks by USC Upstate

The USC Upstate Spartans’ scheme on Tuesday was rather simple: (1) get up as many three-pointers on offense has humanly possible and (2) sit in a packed in zone defense and force the opposition to beat them from the outside.

On Tuesday night, the Spartans, a team that had shot over 30 three’s in its first two games, hoisted up 36 attempts from beyond the arc.  To be fair, Upstate started and played with four guards for pretty much the whole game, which is probably also why the undersized Spartans were content to play zone against the Dawgs to try to minimize Georgia’s size advantage in the paint.

Unfortunately, UGA played an undisciplined game offensively, and it almost resulted in a horrific home loss.  I suppose the Dawgs got jealous of the outside shots that Upstate was taking, and they just couldn’t resist shooting a few themselves as Mark Fox’s team put up 22 three-pointers in this contest (making  only 5 of them).  Shooting three’s was exactly what Upstate wanted Georgia to do; it’s why they played zone for most of the night.  For whatever reason, UGA seemed reluctant to pound the ball into the paint and punish the smaller Atlantic Sun team, and rather, the Dawgs obliged the Upstate game plan.

Georgia’s futility on the offensive side of the ball almost cost them dearly as the Spartans took their first lead of the game with 13:02 left on a three by Deion Holmes.  Upstate would lead for nearly the next 8 minutes until Rayshaun Hammonds seized momentum back for the Dawgs when he knocked down a corner three to put his team on top 60-59.  The freshman scored on a fast break on the ensuing possession, which gave UGA a 62-59 advantage with 3:39 remaining.  Georgia managed to slowly pull away from that point, and they would end up with the 74-65 home win.

Hammonds had another solid outing as he netted 13 points and nabbed 7 boards.  William “Turtle” Jackson also finished in double-figures as he scored a career high 13 points to go along with 4 assists.  Turtle has now hit 4 three-pointers through two games, and he’s looking like the team’s most consistent outside threat in the early going.

Georgia’s defense wasn’t the problem in this one as the Dawgs held Upstate to 65 points, which marked its lowest output of the season.  UGA limited the Spartans to under 37% from the floor and just 27% from beyond the arc.  The Dawgs played primarily man defense with Coach Fox mixing in some 2-3 and matchup zones.  For the most part, though, Georgia followed the scouting report and contested the perimeter to make it more difficult for USC Upstate to get clean looks.

UGA jumped on Upstate early as they started the game with a 13-2 run that was capped off by a three-pointer from Yante Maten, who notched his second double-double in as many games as he scored 22 points and grabbed 14 boards.  Coach Fox’s offense went moderately stagnant over the next 16 minutes as they settled for too many outside shots, which enabled the Spartans to go into the intermission trailing by a scored of 34-30.

The Dawgs came out of the break and took their first five shots from inside the paint; UGA made 4 of those attempts and found themselves up 42-33 after a Mike Edwards layup with over 17 minutes left in the game.  Georgia didn’t stick with this strategy of going inside, though, and Fox’s team made only 1 of their 9 second half three-point attempts.

The Spartans had four players end up in double-figures with Mike Cunningham and Malik Moore leading the way with 16 points apiece.

The Dawgs return to action on Sunday to continue this early season stretch down Murder’s Row as they play host to Texas A&M – Corpus Christi inside The Steg at 1pm.

 

Dawgs coast to 79-54 win over hapless Bryant

For nearly 12 minutes, the Bryant Bulldogs had the look of a team that did not fly all the way from Rhode Island just to lay down for Mark Fox’s team.  With 8:25 left before the break, Bryant trailed 22-13 after leading scorer Adam Grant (24 points) connected on a three.  That was the closest the other Bulldogs would get for the remainder of the evening, though, as Georgia went on an 18-4 run to finish out the first twenty minutes of play that enabled them to take a 40-17 lead at the half.

This run was fueled by 8 points from junior guard William “Turtle” Jackson, who poked his head out and notched all 11 of his points before the intermission (9 of which came from beyond the arc).

Georgia’s man defense suffocated Bryant on Friday as they held the Bulldogs to just 17% from the field for the first half (they finished the night slightly above 25%).   UGA used its superior length to make Bryant uncomfortable, which led to a lot of hurried shots form the outside by the Bulldogs.  Bryant attempted an astounding 31 shots from the three-point line, yet they connected on just 8 of them. However, it was hard to blame the smaller Bulldogs for looking for points from the perimeter as the Dawgs swatted 10 of their shots on the night, with Yante Maten and Nicolas Claxton leading the way with 4 and 3 blocks, respectively (one of Claxton’s rejections was so forceful it shot up into the 4th row of the lower level).

While the Dawgs primarily played half court defense for the majority of the night, Fox did provide a glimpse of a full-court press that could (and should) be employed more down the road: Mike Edwards defended the ball and then trapped on the side where the ball was inbounded.  The result: one steal and a deflected pass. With Edwards’s size and athleticism, this spot on the press could be a nice little defensive niche for him.

Offensively, I loved the sets where Maten received the ball at the high post.  He would give it to the guard on his side of the court, screen on the ball and then work into a little two man game as he rolled off the pick.  Maten had a solid first outing as he notched a double-double and scored a team-high 21 points to go along with 12 rebounds.  Georgia consistently pounded the ball inside to Maten where he took advantage of the helpless Bryant defenders.

Probably the biggest bright spot of the night for Coach Fox was the play of freshman Rayshaun Hammonds, who netted 17 points and snagged 7 boards.  He looked good doing it, too.  Hammonds scored effortlessly close to the basket, and he had several nice buckets from the wing in which he took his defender off the dribble; and he made a three-pointer.  Hammonds could potentially be a key contributor to replacing J.J. Frazier’s points from a year ago.

While UGA fans and players obviously shouldn’t read too much into a win over an opponent that ESPN ranked 298th in the country before the season, it was nice to see Georgia throttle a team that was clearly less talented. I’ve definitely taken in more than a few early season games in which it took nearly 30 minutes for the Dawgs to put away an inferior mid-major team.  Tonight, that was not the case.  Georgia shut this team down early and walked away with a 79-54 victory, which makes the Dawgs a perfect 1-0 on the year.

UGA basketball preview

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Maten made over 48% of his 3PT attempts a year ago.

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.

 

Yante Maten returns for senior season and in the process saves Mark Fox’s job

If Yante Maten had decided to forgo his senior year of basketball at the University of Georgia, the Dawgs would be heading into next season looking to replace 39 points per game, or over 54% of its offense.  Without Yante manning the paint, the over/under on conference wins for UGA would probably be somewhere in the neighborhood of 6.

Even with Maten in the lineup, this year’s team was 6-7 in SEC games prior to his knee injury at the start of the Kentucky contest in Athens; the Dawgs finished 9-9 overall in league games.

At this point, Mark Fox would have a tough time surviving a losing season in the SEC.  While I wasn’t privy to the conversation between Fox and AD Greg McGarrity when they discussed the coach’s 10-year plan for the UGA basketball program, I cannot imagine that “losing more SEC games than you win” in year 9 was on the original agenda.  Maten’s decision to come back to Athens for one last go around should be enough of a boost to keep the Dawgs in the middle the pack in the conference, which is probably good enough to keep Fox’s position safe.

While UGA fans should breath a sense of relief over Maten’s commitment to the G, Georgia is going to have to make up for the 18+ points that J.J. Frazier scored per game.  Frazier and Maten were both named First Team All-SEC players at the end of this season, and the team failed to reach the NCAA tournament due to a lack of quality wins.  Both of these players have been working out for several NBA teams over the past two weeks, yet the Dawgs were ousted from the first round of the postseason NIT by the Belmont Bruins.  Georgia couldn’t earn an NCAA berth with Frazier.  How will they get into the tournament without him?

Before you tell me that Juwan Parker, Derek Ogbeide, Turtle Jackson, Tyree Crump, Jordan Harris and E’Torrian Wilridge are all returning and that 4-star recruit Rayshaun Hammonds will soon be on campus, I want to remind everyone about the team from two years ago that also did not make the NCAA Tournament:  J.J. Frazier (Jr.), Kenny Gaines (Sr.), Charles Mann (Sr.), Yante Maten (Soph) and Derek Ogbeide (Fr).  The 2015-2016 team was even more talented than last year’s squad, and yet they too failed to make the NCAA’s.  The 2017-2018 Dawgs will feature the same frontcourt as the team from two years ago, but how will this season’s backcourt compare to Frazier, Gaines and Mann?

Maten’s return to the team certainly makes the Dawgs a far more competitive SEC team than they were a week ago.  But does Georgia have enough firepower in its arsenal to improve upon last year’s 9-9 showing?  Personally, I don’t think that they do.  However, given Mark Fox’s track record of playing upperclassmen early and often, fans may not get the chance to find out what the young guys can actually do.

 

 

Talking Georgia basketball while watching the NCAA Tournament

Four straight days last week – Thursday to Sunday – my eyes were glued to the television, specifically the following channels: CBS, TBS, TNT and TruTV.  I completely devoured the second and third rounds of the NCAA tournament as I spent what seemed like a solid 72 hours on my couch.  As I watched game after game, I constantly found myself wondering how this year’s UGA team would fare against either of the schools playing.  Was this season truly a failure for Coach Mark Fox’s team, or were they never really talented enough to begin with to even be considered for one of the 36 at-large bids?

One answer is that Georgia basketball came up short this year.  With two First Team All-SEC players on the roster in J.J. Frazier and Yante Maten, one would think that this team would have been announced on the NCAA’s selection show rather than the NIT’s.  Throw in the fact that Frazier and Maten were both upperclassmen and it stings a little bit more.  Frazier finished his career in 7th place on Georgia’s all-time scoring list, and if Maten scores over 500 points next season – which he’s done the past two years – he will crack the top 10 of the same list as well.  That’s a lot of talent to waste on a quick exit from the NIT.  And before anyone shouts out, “Wait! Maten got hurt”, consider that Georgia was 6-7 in the SEC before he went down.

Another reason, which is maybe even harder for Fox and die hard fans to swallow, is that the Dawgs never really had a chance to dance this season.  The Belmont game exposed a talent deficit on the Georgia roster that reared its head quite a few times this year.  The Dawgs got to spend several weeks this summer in Spain playing exhibition games, which means that the team got to hold practices in the off-season, a luxury that most coaches are not afforded.  This veteran-led squad should have been rearing and ready to go at the start of the season, and yet they weren’t.  Georgia laid a dud in the season opener at Clemson.  They also lost to Kansas, Marquette and Oakland.  Other than a road win at Georgia Tech, UGA really didn’t have much to speak of regarding non-conference wins as they headed into the SEC slate.  Once again, Mark Fox’s team failed to capitalize on early season opportunities to notch quality wins.  Hopefully the Dawgs learned that just being on the court with tough competition is not enough; they do, in fact, have to win a few of those games, too.

One area of the court where Georgia really struggled throughout the season was from beyond the arc.  The Dawgs made just 175 three-pointers to their competition’s 246.  UGA’s opponents got an extra 6 points a game from the perimeter, which is significant for a team that averaged less than 72 points a game.  The game of basketball has changed significantly over the past decade, and the three-pointer is an integral part of any good offense.  Yet, Georgia continues to be content with having only a few three-point threats on the roster at any given time.  Unfortunately, the Dawgs lose one of their more effective outside shooters in Frazier, meaning the team will get three’s next season from Tyree Crump, Maten from the top of the key, and where else?  Fox has yet to win an NCAA tournament game at Georgia, and unless he’s going to turn the Dawgs into an athletically supreme powerhouse like UCLA, Louisville or Kentucky, it would behoove him to add more outside shooters like nearly every team playing in the big dance.

Whether we compare the Dawgs roster this year to an NCAA tournament team or Belmont, it’s clear that they just don’t have enough players to be an upper echelon program.  Other than Maten and Frazier, who on Georgia would start for one of these tourney teams?  Maybe Derek Ogbeide?  Mark Fox likes to play 10 to 11 guys a game, and sadly, his 4 through 11 players would struggle to take minutes away from any of the Belmont players I saw in that NIT game.

Ultimately, this season has to be viewed as a disappointment for UGA basketball no matter how it is spun.  Another trip to the NIT felt like a step backwards.  Looking ahead to next season, there is a lot that Georgia fans have to be concerned about.  If it felt like Georgia was missing something on offense this year without Kenny Gaines and Charles Mann, imagine what it’s going to look like next year without Frazier.  Second, Yante Maten is not a lock to return to Athens.  He is currently projected as the 48th pick in the 2018 Mock Draft on NBADraft.net, but that site’s owner said that should Maten leave early he would be a projected second-rounder this year as well:

After averaging nearly 20 points and 10 boards a game this season, what motivation does Yante have to come back?  Statistically, the best he can do is match what he did this year, and that could be difficult with a less experienced backcourt.  Should Maten bolt for the NBA, what does next season look like for this program?

Sorry for the long post, but sports wise, this is my favorite time of year, and the contrast between the teams I am watching now compared to the one I watched inside Stegeman this season could not be more stark.

Belmont cruises past Georgia in Athens

12529676Mark Fox’s Georgia Bulldogs’ appearance in this year’s NIT tournament was short-lived.  UGA attempted to defend its home court without the services of Yante Maten and Juwan Parker, and in the end, it failed as the Dawgs fell 78-69 to Belmont.  For the second straight year, Georgia will head into the offseason wondering “what if” in regards to this tournament.  Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be for the Dawgs this March, or maybe advancing to the semifinals of the NIT is an intricate part of year 9 of Fox’s 10-year plan.  Either way, UGA’s season is done as they finish 19-15 on the year (assuming we include the win over Division II Morehouse).

Tonight, Georgia struggled to cover the perimeter against a Belmont (23-6) team that entered this game hitting 10 three-pointers a night.  Surely defending the outside had to be a point of focus in practice the past several days.  Yet, the Bruins torched the Dawgs for 7 three’s in the first half.  UGA responded by switching to man defense out of the intermission, and Belmont promptly hit 3 more from beyond the arc.  Fox put his team back in its bread and butter – the matchup zone – only to see the Dawgs yield 4 more three-pointers.  By the time the final horn sounded, the Bruins had knocked down a whopping 14 three-pointers, and they finished with a blistering 45% mark from the perimeter.  For the Dawgs’ defense, mission not accomplished.

For a while in the second half, the Bruins simplified their offense down to an NBA-like style as they allowed Evan Bradds to back down whoever was on his side of the UGA zone until help came over and he could kick it to an open shooter.  Watching the Bruins score the ball over and over again in this fashion was quite painful as a UGA fan.  And Bradds had plenty of options to pass it to as he and three of his teammates finished the game in double-figures.  The Bruins were led by Dylan Windler, who scored 21 points.  Windler came into this contest netting just 9 a night against Ohio Valley competition, but this evening he shredded the Georgia defense and appeared to be virtually unguardable.

On the flip side, Georgia’s offense was J.J. Frazier, who led all scorers with 29 points.  Frazier used his athleticism to get to the basket basically whenever he pleased, but his efforts alone were not enough this time.  The rest of the UGA offense looked stagnant and almost content to stand by and watch the J.J. Frazier show.  Turtle Jackson and Tyree Crump each finished with 10 points, but did not shoot the ball particularly well, going 4 for 11 and 4 for 10, respectively.  The Dawgs didn’t shoot it well as a team as they connected on 42% from the floor and just 23% from beyond the arc.

Georgia’s ineptness on the offensive side of the ball is why this team only led Belmont for 19 seconds on Wednesday.

Even though Maten and Parker were out, one would think that Georgia should win this game at home.  The problem, though, is that other than Frazier and Ogbiede, the Bruins had better players on the court.  Belmont’s players shot the ball more efficiently and ran their offense to precision.  UGA’s 5 through 8 players on the roster should be at least as talented as a team from the Ohio Valley, and if that’s not the case their needs to be serious questions asked about the direction that this program is heading.