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.

 

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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.

 

 

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.

 

Kentucky overcomes upset-minded UGA

12450736When Yante Maten went down with a knee injury just two minutes into the game yesterday against Kentucky, the collective hopes of everyone inside Stegemen Coliseum rooting for Georgia to get the signature win it desperately needed took a major hit. Maten spent about 10 minutes in the locker room before gingerly making his way back to the UGA bench, where he sat for the rest of the evening.  Georgia’s big man, who has been a nightmare for opposing defenses all season, could barely put any pressure on his right leg.

This should have been enough to break the Dawgs’ spirits.  With their leader done for the night, UGA could easily have crumbled, considering the daunting task that now lay before them.  Yet, for some reason, they didn’t. Georgia simply dug in and went toe-to-toe with the #13 Wildcats for the next 38 minutes.  Kentucky’s roster is so loaded with talent that Coach Calipari sends in 5-star recruits off the bench, whereas Mark Fox has to add Juwan Parker and Mike Edwards’s recruiting stars together to get to five.  Regardless, the Dawgs found themselves with possession of the basketball with 44 seconds left and the game tied at 75 apiece.  As the shot clock melted down, Kentucky sent an extra defender to jump J.J. Frazier at the top of the key.  Frazier kicked it to Pape Diatta, who forced the ball into the lane and ended up getting blocked by two Wildcat defenders.  The Cats took the lead on the ensuing possession following a pair of free throws from De’Aaron Fox, Frazier missed his next jumper and Kentucky managed to hit its free throws and escape from Athens with the 82-77 road win.

Despite the overwhelming amount of talent that Calipari has at his disposal, the best player on the court on Saturday was easily Georgia’s J.J. Frazier.  J.J. hit a three-pointer with time expiring from just inside Milledge Avenue to cut the Kentucky lead to 33-31 as the teams headed into the intermission.  This shot electrified the Steg and was just a little preview of what UGA fans could expect to see from their point guard in the second half.

After the break, Frazier became superman.  J.J. diced up the Kentucky defense and scored 22 points on an array of challenging layups that seemingly increased in difficulty level as the game progressed. By the end of this contest, Frazier had 36 points, and Kentucky had a bunch of angry guards who had fouled out trying to deal with him.  Isaiah Briscoe, who had over 20 points when these team met earlier in Lexington, couldn’t control his emotions as J.J. continually bruised his ego; Briscoe would score only 9 points before fouling out with almost 5 minutes left in the game.  His replacement, Dominique Hawkins, also racked up 5 personals trying to stay in front of Frazier.

Even De’Aaron Fox missed significant minutes due to foul trouble (another credit to Frazier), but Fox got himself together and poured in 14 of his 16 points after the break, providing Kentucky the spark it desperately needed to keep up with the Dawgs.

As fantastic as Frazier played, he didn’t pull off this near upset all by himself. Juwan Parker and Mike Edwards also ended up in double-figures with 10 points each.  Edwards played with a level of toughness inside that he hadn’t yet displayed in his initial two years in Athens.

Derek Ogbeide only chipped in 4 points, but he was the anchor of the UGA defense, holding down the paint and snagging a team-high 11 rebounds.  Bam Adebayo scored 13 points for the Cats, but half of those points came at the expense of Houston Kessler.

And while Diatta’s quasi-turnover came at an incredibly inopportune time for the Dawgs, Pape played an otherwise solid second half.  He scored all 9 of his points after the break, including a huge three-pointer from the wing that gave Georgia a 64-61 lead with a little over 5 minutes remaining.

The only other Kentucky player to score in double-digits was Malik Monk, who notched 16 points on a frustrating 3 for 11 performance from the field, a far cry from the 37-point effort he put in the first time these teams matched up.

For the most part, UGA played a pretty sound game defensively.  Probably the biggest negative the Dawgs will take away from this game is that they allowed the Cats to control the glass by a tally of 41-26.  More importantly, UGA yielded 14 offensive boards to Kentucky, which led to 8 second chance points that may have ultimately been the difference in this one.

In the end, Georgia came up a little short of pulling off this miracle, and Coach Fox’s teams have now lost 23 straight games to ESPN RPI Top 25 teams.  A season that began with high expectations may be over in less than 3 weeks.  With a 15-12 record (6-8 SEC), UGA isn’t going to the NCAA tournament, and depending on Maten’s status, they may miss the NIT as well.

With all that being said, UGA fans had to be darn proud of the way those kids in the white jerseys fought for 40 minutes yesterday.

 

UGA basketball: The Going Slow Edition

 

The Georgia Bulldogs are 3-0 and sitting atop of the conference standings, and if they continue to play at this level they have a real shot at earning an automatic bid to this year’s NCAA tournament.

If only the Dawgs played in the Big South Conference then everything in my opening statement would be true.  Georgia has played three teams from the Big South this year – UNC-Asheville, Gardner-Webb and Charleston Southern – and they trashed all of them.  Sure, the Garder-Webb game was close at the half (UGA held a 3 point lead), but the Dawgs ended up coasting to a 77-59 win.  Georgia easily bested UNC-Asheville, who is currently in first place in the league with an 11-2 record.  Who’s to say that UGA couldn’t amass a similar or even better record if they were playing a Big South slate of games?

All of this is obviously parody, or maybe fantasy?  The reality is Georgia is stuck in the SEC where they are 4-7 and in the midst of a five-game losing streak in conference games. Even though the Dawgs play in a Power 5 conference, they look a lot more like a mid-major, which is kind of sad considering they have two preseason All-SEC players on the roster.

But other than Yante Maten and J.J. Frazier, this Georgia team doesn’t have the type of talent you expect from a Power 5 school.  Juwan Parker would be a solid 6th man on a lot of quality teams, but the third scoring option?  Parker, who at 6’3″ is grossly undersized for the wing position, is shooting less than 38% from the floor and below 18% from beyond the arc, yet he has taken the third most shots on the team.

I love Derek Ogbeide’s effort on defense.  He is a committed rebounder and a shot-blocking threat.  But his offensive game is not where it needs to be at this point.  Ogbeide has essentially one move that he does nearly every time he gets a touch on the block: turn left, hook shot.  And SEC teams have begun to take notice.  Several times against Florida on Tuesday, the Gator defender overplayed Ogbeide so much to the left that it appeared that he was gifting him the right side of the basket, but Derek didn’t bite and still went left.

It’s too early to make assumptions on Jordan Harris and Tyree Crump.  As highly-touted recruits, both players are capable of making tremendous jumps between their freshman and sophomore years, especially Harris since he actually gets regular court time.

But what about the rest of UGA’s cast?  Guys like Turtle Jackson, Mike Edwards, Houston Kessler, Kenny Paul Geno, E’Torrion Wilridge.  How successful would those guys be in the Big South?  All of them get regular minutes on Coach Fox’s team, but none of them is the least bit dangerous with the ball in their hands, which gives opposing defenses an incredible advantage over Georgia, especially when more than one of them is on the court at once.  At times this year, J.J. Frazier has appeared to be pushing it a bit and maybe taking some shots that he shouldn’t.  But when Maten is on the bench, can you really blame him?

I’m not trying to slam any of these guys.  I realize that they are just college kids that were offered an opportunity to play for UGA and they took it.  The fact that they might be in over their heads is not their fault; it’s Mark Fox’s.

In year eight of his ten-year plan, this is the team that Fox has assembled.  They turn the ball over a lot (more than 14 a game) and they do not shoot well from the outside (281st in the nation in 3PT%).  Apparently, both of these aforementioned reasons have Fox indicating that it’s time to slow things down.  I guess I need to pop over to Jittery Joe’s before the game today because seeing this team play any slower is going to potentially put me into nap mode.

Going slow is definitely an option that a coach has when his team has a talent deficit compared to their opponent, which has been the case for Georgia in most SEC games this year.  But he also has the choice to speed things up a bit.  Turtle, Edwards and Wilridge might not put the fear of God into too many defenders, but they are all long players that are highly athletic.  When Maten is out of the game, why not utilize their main collective strength and put them in a full-court trap press, similar to the one that Texas A&M ran.  Sorry, too soon?

Anyhow, imagine Edwards guarding the ball and then trapping with either Turtle or Wilridge (or Parker or Geno for that matter), depending on which side the ball goes. Presses can create offensive opportunities for stagnant offenses, yet Georgia barely ever does it.

The Dawgs have one and a half outside shooting threats and only two guys who can create their own shot.  But they do have some athletes, and athletes can put pressure on ball handlers in the open court.

 

Florida completes season sweep of Georgia in Athens with 72-60 win

12419220Mark Fox had to be experiencing déjà vu inside of Stegeman Coliseum this evening.  In the loss to South Carolina last Saturday, Georgia’s offense went over 8 minutes without a field goal; this evening, the Dawgs pulled a similar disappearing act, going more than 6 minutes without a bucket from the floor.  By the time Yante Maten finished an open dunk inside to end the drought, UGA (13-11, 4-7) trailed 63-52 with only 3:50 remaining, and the Dawgs would go on to lose 72-60.

But it wasn’t just poor shooting that did the Dawgs in on Tuesday evening.  Believe it or not, this contest was actually close at times.  With 16:00 left in the game, Florida held a slim 41-38 advantage.  Mark Fox’s team got careless, though, and turned the ball over on the next three possessions, which enabled the Gators to push the lead to 48-40 during a critical stretch of this game.

On the night, Georgia gave the ball away 16 times, and depending on how some other SEC games shake out this week, UGA could be leading the conference in giveaways by the weekend.  To make matters worse, Florida was opportunistic this evening, converting those Georgia TOs into 18 points.  Yante Maten carried the torch with 5 turnovers as he had trouble protecting the ball inside against multiple Florida defenders.  Jordan Harris gave the ball over 3 times himself, and he continues to get it stripped easily from his hands when he attempts to drive the ball at the defense.

Georgia struggled tonight offensively against a Florida team that is second in conference play in team defense, holding opponents to just 66 points a night.  The Gators are bigger and more athletic than UGA, and every time Yante Maten touched the ball inside the Florida zone collapsed on him.  Maten finished with 19 points and J.J. Frazier chipped in 18, but for the most part the Dawgs were stymied when they had the ball.  Georgia’s lack of shooters always becomes painfully apparent when they are playing strong defensive units that can overplay Maten and Frazier.  The Dawgs hit only 33% of their shots as a team, but everyone not named Maten or Frazier shot a collective 26% on the night.

Florida overwhelmed Georgia quickly at the start of this one as they jumped out to a 30-14 lead.  The Dawgs, though, responded with a 15-0 run of their own to cut the Gators’ advantage down to 30-29.  Florida went without a field goal for nearly 8 minutes of play during the latter portion of the first half, but Kasey Hill broke the spell by hitting a jumper with 1:45 left, which gave the Gators a 35-33 lead that they would take into the intermission.

Other than this stretch of play in the first half, UGA for much of the night had trouble handling Florida on defense.  The Gators’ backup point guard, Chris Chiozza, was a matchup nightmare for the Dawgs as he knifed into the middle of the lane whenever he wanted.  Chiozza led all Florida scorers with 15 points to go along with 4 steals, and he was one of four Gators to finish the game in double-figures.

These two teams played a tightly contested game and went to overtime a month ago in Gainesville, but it was pretty clear tonight that one team is trending upward and in the right direction, and the other team is Georgia.

Now the really bad news.  This loss marks the first time in Fox’s career that he has dropped 5 consecutive SEC games.  Furthermore, UGA has yet to earn a conference win against a team with a winning record in league play.  Georgia is 0-7 against what ESPN deems the RPI Top 50, and the Dawgs have now lost 22 straight games over the past five seasons to teams in ESPN’s RPI Top 25.

 

Georgia bounces back with a 59-57 win over Texas

When Derek Ogbeide’s lay-up off of J.J. Frazier’s airball was waved off by the officials with 7.8 seconds remaining, it felt like Georgia (13-8) was destined for more Saturday afternoon heartbreak.  Two weeks ago the Dawgs lost in overtime at Florida, and last week UGA blew a 9-point lead in the final two minutes to Texas A&M.  “Here we go again” had to be in the back of the minds of the fans inside Stegeman.  Even though Georgia showed Texas full-court pressure, the Longhorns still got the ball inside to their center Jarrett Allen, who shot a potential game-tying, last-second hook shot.  The ball briefly flirted with the idea of going in before eventually popping back out, and the Dawgs earned a much needed 59-57 home win that snapped a two-game losing streak.

The turning point in this game came right at the start of the second half, when Shaka Smart had his Texas (8-13) team take the floor in a man defense.  The Dawgs ate it up, feeding the ball to Yante Maten, who took advantage of going against just one defender and scored 4 points during an 8-0 UGA run that erased the Longhorn’s 32-23 halftime advantage.

Georgia played pretty well defensively throughout in this one.  It was the UGA offense, however, that was Jekyll and Hyde-ish on Saturday.  Smart’s decision to come out in man seemed curious since his Texas team had frustrated the bejesus out of the Dawgs before the break using primarily a 2-3 zone.  Georgia tried to shoot over the Longhorn zone, and that didn’t turn out too well for Mark Fox’s team as they mustered only 7 field goals prior to the intermission, none of which came from anywhere other than the paint.

screen-shot-2017-01-29-at-6-26-03-am
1st half shot chart: UGA’s shots are the red ones, and all those empty circles represent clunkers that the Dawgs tossed up from the outside.

But back to the second half.  The Dawgs’ offense became much more efficient as Georgia started actually knocking down open shots.  UGA followed up a 29% first half shooting performance by making a robust 52% of their shots after the break.

Mark Fox got key contributions from numerous players. Jordan Harris canned a pair of three-pointers.  Juwan Parker, who was forcing it a bit before the break, hit two big shots from the baseline late in the game that helped preserve the UGA lead.  Yante Maten, who led all scorers with 21 points, put the ball in the basket on a critical possession with less than a minute remaining to bolster the Dawgs’s advantage up to 59-56.

Georgia could have folded, but it didn’t.  The Dawgs managed to hang on and found a way to win, although Frazier certainly tried his best to make it interesting on UGA’s final possession when he took a highly contested baseline runner over two Texas defenders that air balled and ultimately resulted in the previously mentioned shot clock violation.

Hopefully this game helped to restore a little of Georgia’s confidence, which had to be hurting after the drubbing that Alabama put on this team on Wednesday, because boy are they going to need it.  On Tuesday night, UGA heads to Lexington to take on a feisty group of Cats that are now in the midst of a two-game losing streak of their own.