Recently there's been a chill in the air around Athens. This is a sure sign that a) sundress season is coming to an end, b) football season is hitting the Amen Corner stretch that separates the good years from the bad, and c) it's about time for Mark Fox's Hoop 'Dawgs to turn things loose on the basketball court again. This is the first of a two part series examing the Bulldogs' 2011-2012 roster. For now we'll take a look at the guys returning from last season's tournament squad, and later we'll take a look at the incoming signing class, which should find opportunity ripe for the picking in the Classic City.
When last we saw our red and black clad roundball protagonists, they were losing a hard-fought NCAA tournament game to those other dogs, the Washington Huskies. Shortly thereafter, two key cogs in Coach Fox's tournament machine left Athens for the bright lights of the NBA. Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie were, beyond all shadow of a doubt, the leaders of the 2010-2011 Bulldog basketball squad. They're gone. Like, really gone. I had to type that again just to convince myself that it's true. But I digress.
It would be hard to overstate the contribution that Thompkins and Leslie made to the Bulldogs' tournament run. The duo finished 1-2 on the team in both scoring and rebounding, after all. I'm not a basketball scholar by any means, but I'm given to understand that as a general rule scoring and rebounding are kind of a big deal. At least in the games I've watched. Along with the departed Jeremy Price and Chris Barnes (and freshman Marcus Thornton) Thompkins and Leslie led a frontcourt attack which Sports Illustrated ranked one of the 10 best in college hoops this time last year. Now Coach Fox will lean on Thornton as the most experienced member of the red and black frontcourt. He's joined among returning players by lightly used Donte Williams, who played a mere 6 minutes a game in 2010-2011.
More after the jump . . .Williams has the size at 6'9, 210 pounds to absorb some minutes down low. There have also been reports out of Athens that Williams has committed to getting in shape this offseason, which would go a long way toward helping his status as a rebounder. With no Price or Thompkins, Mark Fox is going to need somebody to clean the glass. That's especially true if he has trouble finding consistent shooters on the perimeter (more on that shortly). If it's not Thornton, and it's not Williams, it's going to have to be one of the guys from our most recent signing class, which we'll be examining in the next installment of this series.
The good news is that the 'Dawgs have copious experience returning in the backcourt. The big question will be how that collection of backcourt talent has matured since the end of last season. If they have grown into their roles and show up ready to play from day one Georgia may in fact be just as good or (and this is the only place you'll read this this preseason, so remember where you heard it . . .) better than last season. Gerald Robinson and Dustin Ware will be back for their senior seasons, and as they go, I predict, so will this basketball season. Sure, a lot of eyes will be on freshman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope of Greenville. But at some point even talented freshmen hit the wall, or have a bad half. Ultimately there's no substitute for veteran leadership.
Veteran leadership that can score the basketball and not turn it over is even better. Robinson however struggled with turnovers at times in 2010-11, especially early in the season. But, Larry Munson as my witness, he appears to have gotten the hang of SEC competition as the season wore on. Don't believe me? To the blogger maths!
For the year Robinson averaged 4 assists per game against 3 turnovers. However, 39 of the Tennessee State transfer's 133 total assists came in the final 7 games of the season. That's 29.3% of his production in that category crammed into the final 21.8% of the season. On the other side of the coin, Robinson turned it over 22 times in that same stretch. So while his AS/TO (assist to turnover ratio) was an unhealthy 1.25:1 for the season, Robinson's ratio down the stretch in SEC play was nearly 2:1 (not great, but not bad either).
Robinson is also the Bulldogs' leading returning scorer with a 12.2 PPG average in 2010-2011. One of the key questions this season will be whether he can man the point so that Dustin Ware can settle into the shooting guard role. Ware actually quietly led the SEC in assist to turnover ratio in each of the past 2 seasons. But Robinson's turnover problems necessitated running the offense through Ware more than I presume Coach Fox would have liked.
The Hoop Dawgs will also look for backcourt production from Dublin native Sherrard Brantley. Brantley came to Athens with a reputation as a long distance sharpshooter. When he found his stroke, he was in fact a weapon from the outside. In 2010 however Brantley misfired a fair bit, shooting 31.3% from the field, 30.9% from behind the 3-point line. He went 0-10 from behind the line in Georgia's last 5 SEC contests. Without Thompkins and Leslie, getting him cranked up would do a lot to stretch the court and take some pressure off Georgia's inexperienced post players.
Additional depth in the backcourt will be provided by Vincent Williams and Connor Nolte. Nolte actually has the size to play either the forward position or the hybrid guard spot that Fox likes to employ occasionally to create more of a 3 guard look. It wouldn't be surprising to see him make use of the depth in the backcourt to play a smaller lineup and a more up-tempo game, especially early in the season while waiting for the incoming recruits to get their collective footing.
Regardless of the strategy employed, Mark Fox is going to have to earn his paycheck this year with a team that returns fewer players than any coach would like, and whose returning players have played far less than Fox would probably prefer. Thompkins, Leslie, Price, and Barnes were 4 of the Dawgs' top 6 players in terms of total minutes played in 2010-2011. They took a great deal of collective experience and veteran leadership out the door when they left. Whether or not Georgia returns to the Big Dance will depend largely on how the youngsters left behind handle a reasonably tough schedule, including some stout out-of-conference matchups (Cal, Xavier, Cinncinnati, Southern Cal, and either Missouri or Notre Dame in the CBE Classic). Until later . . .