So the season is over for hoops. The women finished when the SEC Tournament did, and the men saw JJ Frazier and others end their careers in an NIT opening round loss to a Belmont program that was still in the NAIA when those seniors were born. Being Joni Taylor’s second season, we can wait a little before evaluating how the second coach in Georgia women’s hoops history is doing.
But on the men’s side, for a team that entered the season with hopes of being on the dance card this afternoon or tomorrow, that’s disappointing. And considering it failed to capitalize on similar hopes the season before, the frustration is simply mounting. But considering where the program was on his arrival, that Mark Fox has gotten us to the point where the past two years are disappointments is a good thing. But unlike some other media outlets may have tried to state earlier this year, this is not a 12 year rebuilding project here. So what should the expectations be for this program going forward under Mark Fox, since that is the plan barring unforseen interlopers.
This past season, Mark Fox had the most talent on the floor of his career. Assuming 6’8 big man Yante Maten returns for his senior season, it should only get better next year. While recruiting has had more misses than hits in state, Mark Fox has raised the talent level of the roster considerably over the last 5 seasons. Kamar Baldwin may be wrecking shop for Butler this afternoon, but Tyree Crump and Jordan Harris were considered similar talents out of high school and began to grow in to larger roles in the second half of the season. Expectations will be high for the south west Georgia pair to help fill the scoring void outside that Frazier is leaving behind.
Incoming forward Rayshaun Hammonds is generally considered among the top 50 players in the nation, and with versatile 6’9 F Nic Claxton and big guard Teshaun Hightower joining the team along with him, the Dawgs will be deeper, bigger, more athletic than any so far for Fox. With room for more to be added this spring, perhaps a veteran floor general to ease the burden of creation on Crump, Harris, and rising junior Turtle Jackson as the only true perimeter options on the roster along with Hightower.
But as said above, this team has been continually improving in terms of talent at hand for the last 3+ years, yet the results have been stuck at right around 20 wins, a decent showing in a bad conference, and a ready to burst NCAA bubble resume. Then again, throughout Georgia basketball history, that’s about as good as it gets.
Hugh Durham was a Final Four coach at Florida State having lost to a Bill Walton-led UCLA squad in the national title game, before he was brought to Athens. And after a quick run to the Final Four won by another potential poacher of NC State in 1983, his teams settled in right around this level for the last decade or so of his time in Athens. Jim Harrick won a national title at UCLA, and yet he never won an SEC Tournament game and was bounced twice by lower seeds in the only two NCAA Tournament trips he made with UGA. Tubby Smith made back to back Sweet 16s with Tulsa before we brought him in. He made it three straight Sweet 16 trips his first season, followed by a three seed the following year for arguably Georgia men’s basketball best ever run. Of course, we’ve made a mere five NCAA Tournament appearances in 20 years since the current Memphis head man left for bluer pastures too.
So what’s holding us back? A lot if we’re being honest. Fans rarely care, with football recruits getting louder cheers than all time greats and little groundswell to demand better from the program. An athletic department still reportedly scared of some of the more exaggeratedly problematic areas of basketball recruiting, in part because it may bring more sunlight around risking the cash cow of the similarly shady football recruiting at the highest levels of college football, doesn’t help. Nor does the fact that group seems more considered with profitability and bank accounts than succeeding at or above past levels on the field/court/whatever in UGA programs. We aren’t bad, aren’t embarrassing, and aren’t losing money, so everything is working as hoped (at least going off general fan expectations and administrative/booster demands).
In spite of the current frustrations at the program’s recent stagnation, we are still doing well, and better than before. Mark Fox has stabilized the program from the steaming crater Dennis Felton had going, and had the team playing consistently strong defense. It may be ugly, but it is effective, as we’ve continually been among the better teams in an admittedly down SEC, and good enough that NIT trips can get diehard blood boiling. And again, that’s with a steadily improving talent level at Fox’s disposal to expect more going forward.
Recruiting has improved, but can get better as Hammonds was one of five top 50 recruits in state this year. The other four are headed to Duke (hard to argue there), but then two are headed to Auburn and Alabama teams that have been consistently worse than us of late and the other we’ve never really been mentioned with despite being good at something we’re still lacking (wing scoring). The state of Georgia had another 5 in the 50-75 range nationally according to the 247 composite ratings, and we didn’t land any of them. For a program that had solidified itself at a higher level, with a staff that had been in place for multiple years to work these recruits, that’s another big disappointment. Getting one top 50 talent is good, but missing on 9 top 75 recruits is a massive missed opportunity to load up the roster for a run at Kentucky or Florida at the top of the conference in the next couple years.
Our offensive issues are significant, and that plays a part in failures off the floor as well as on it. Recruits are hesitant to sign up for a school that has historically treated them with disdain when issues arise, in a system that aside from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has been a nightmare to learn and produce early within despite increased reliance on freshmen across our competitors and other top programs. Georgia has another strong crop available in 2018, with a handful of top 150 recruits looking our way again. We’ve simply got to start being more effective offensively, in ball movement, in ball handling, player movement, shot making (forget our struggles having multiple quality 3 pt shooters on the floor at a given time lately, how many point blank layups have we missed the last few years? we MUST start making shots if we’re going to take the next step up the ladder), and passing, so basically most fundamental aspects of offensive basketball. Adapt the offense to maximize the talent at hand, begin to get more talent, and the program can rise again. But even after years in the system, our offense still gives players difficulty leading to long droughts and the failure to close out games as Ws instead of Ls.
Next season is a chance to take that long awaited next step, with Crump, Harris, and Maten all having shown the ability to play at elite levels, and strong supporting cast around them. But for one reason or another, this program has failed to take that step for going on 24, if not 36, months now. It’s time there stops being excuses made about reasons we’re failing to take that step, and time to start coming up with reasons to climb upwards again. It starts with the spring recruiting period, and continues in to late fall and early winter when the team gets back on the floor and has to do a better job of scoring more points than their opponents (aka winning games) throughout the season so those excuses of games at Clemson and Oakland and Florida and Texas A&M stop keeping us from where we want to go.