We are now one full week removed from the Hoop Dawgs' 78-66 loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament, which seems like ample time for heads to cool before taking a look back on the season that was. Despite possibly deserving one, or at least being the best team in the land that didn't deserve one, the Georgia basketball team did not receive a postseason bid. The season is over, and for once, more than half of us here in Bulldog Nation actually noticed. In its own way, that in and of itself is progress.
Back in May, I noted that the early returns on the Mark Fox era were promising. I declared that if we finished with 6 SEC wins and stayed out of trouble I would be happy with the season. Counting last Thursday's tournament win over Arkansas, the 'Dawgs did just that. And when I made that pre-Memorial Day declaration, I had no inkling that the squad that appeared so aimless last season would also beat Illinois and Georgia Tech out of conference and take #1 tournament seed Kentucky down to the wire in Rupp Arena.
While I don't always agree with the AJC's Jeff Schultz, he is right when he says that this team has established some direction, something that could never truly be said during the Dennis Felton era. Felton seemed to take an almost sadistic delight in squandering any whiff of upward momentum. There was poor free throw shooting and defensive lapses and inexplicable time management, and a host of other indignities one would not expect in year 3 (or 4, or 5) of even the most daunting rebuilding project. Players emerged as viable options, then were kicked off the team. It was like watching a kangaroo drive a monster truck through midtown Manhattan: even when he made some progress you knew it was just a prelude to bloodshed and heartbreak around the next corner.
Mark Fox , on the other hand, seems to be taking every little twig and pebble thrown his way and building a mansion of momentum out of it. Better free throw shooting. A better conditioned Albert Jackson. Travis Leslie channeling the Human Highlight Film. From Calipari at Kentucky to Pelphrey at Arkansas, opposing coaches have gushed about Mark Fox, and the fact that his players appeared well-coached and played hard. Wasn't that what we were really hoping for coming into this season? Could we reasonably have asked for any more?
I'm not saying Georgia will be in the NCAA Tournament next season. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't necessarily be surprised if we were in the Big Dance next March, but there's still work to be done. A short list of things that need to happen to continue building would include at least the following:
- Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie returning. This looks more and more likely. Leslie all but admitted recently that he would be back. And Trey has talked fairly candidly about some of the things he needs to do better. Perhaps the biggest thing is get physically ready to play in the NBA. Look at Trey Thompkins, then look at the power forwards on any NBA roster. The big difference? About 60 pounds on the bench press and 10 pounds worth of homemade biscuits and cheeseburgers. Trey is also way too inconsistant and foul-prone at this point to go as high in the NBA Draft as he could with another year of development. On the bizarro-side, when was the last time we were evenly remotely concerned about not one, but two UGA basketball players jumping to the NBA? It's like we fell down the rabbit hole and found out that the Mad Hatter is actually just Dick Vitale.
The development of Jeremy Price. A lot of attention has been focused on our need for a bona fide point guard. But the Vanderbilt tournament loss (and Trey's goose egg on the scoreboard in the first half of that game) point to the fact that not only do we need options on the outside (more on that later) but also need big Price to be able to clear space inside. Teams that go deep in the NCAA Tournament usually have at least two big guys who they can just keep feeding the ball to when the game is on the line. Price could be that guy for Georgia if he continues to develop as a scorer.
Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. Very few teams are going to go dancing in March while averaging 15.2 turnovers per game the way th 2009-10 Hoop Dawgs did. It's tempting to blame this season's turnover troubles on the guards, and a go-to point guard is certainly a need here. But a closer look at the stats shows that it was really a team effort. Trey Thompkins committed a team leading 91 turnovers. Jeremy Price chipped in 46 and Albert Jackson had 33. As the team's familiarity with the offense improves this number will almost certainly improve. Cutting that number down to 12 a game or less could be worth 5 more wins next season, before we consider any other improvements. That would put us within sight of 20 wins, a mark last reached by UGA basketball in 2001-02. Yeah. It's been that long.
- Better guard play. This is nothing against Ricky McPhee, Dustin Ware and the host of other guys who played opposite Travis Leslie on the outside this season. As a group, those guys turned in some gutty performances. But no one we put in that spot had the ability to dribble out of the press and create his own shot consistently. Maybe the answer is Tennessee State transfer Gerald Robinson, Jr. Maybe it's Dustin Ware's continued development and transformation into a solid point guard. The bottom line is that somebody has to be able to pull defenses out toward the perimeter, or Trey Thompkins will continue to get more attention (and fewer good looks at the rim) than we'd like our All-SEC big man to get.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list, and some of these are more important than others. But suffice it to say that the 2009-10 Georgia Bulldogs demonstrated to me that they are moving in the right direction and have the right guy at the wheel. At this point, that's really about all we could reasonably hope for. Remind me again, who is this Anthony Grant guy again? Until later . . .