NASHVILLE – One major overhanging question about Georgia’s future was answered. So why not try to answer another one? Yante Maten, the team’s All-SEC junior forward, was asked Wednesday: So your coach is coming back next year. What about you?
Maten laughed. He kept smiling as he looked down and thought, as if debating whether to make news himself. He decided not to.
“You know … I’m not 100 percent where I am at right now,” Maten said, then slapped the reporter on the shoulder as he walked away. “That was a pretty slick try there though.”
This year still isn’t over. There’s still the matter of the SEC tournament, and then whatever comes after. But the big news right now is the assurance from Georgia’s administration that Mark Fox will return. And assuming Maten returns, Georgia on paper has a good team coming back.
But that doesn’t mean that some things shouldn’t change. One man’s suggestions – one man who has been watching this team all year and for seven years – on changes Fox needs to make:
1. SUCCESS IN NOVEMBER AND DECEMBER
For all the deserved consternation over Georgia’s close losses in SEC play, especially to the top three teams, non-conference play was ultimately where this team may have blown its chance at an NCAA bid.
Georgia went 9-4, which is usually okay when you consider the overall schedule strength. But only one of those games (Kansas on a not-so-neutral court) was really unwinnable. Georgia lost three other very winnable games: At Clemson and Oakland, and Marquette at home. Those teams currently have RPI ranks of 63, 116 and 55. And unlike the close losses later in the season, these games weren’t all that close. Georgia did lead Oakland at halftime, but otherwise was soundly beaten in those games.
It’s a frustration hallmark of Fox’s teams over the latter half of his tenure. He schedules well, and deserves credit for it, but then the Bulldogs fall behind in non-conference play and spend the SEC part of the season playing catch-up.
Scheduling easier isn’t really an option. And there’s no obvious reason the team starts so slowly. One of Greg McGarity’s dictates to Fox this offseason should be: Figure out the problem in non-conference play, and fix it.
2. PLAY THE YOUNG GUYS MORE
It’s a bit of an unfair rap to Mark Fox doesn’t play freshmen. Jordan Harris started 12 games this year. Derek Ogbeide started 15 games last year. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope started 31 games as a freshman. Brandon Morris started 20 games as a freshman. And so on.
But there’s no question that Fox puts a high premium on knowing his system and playing strong defense, two areas where freshmen often lag behind. Crump may be the third-best scorer on this year’s team – actually there’s probably no “may be” about it – but he’s only played a total of 97 minutes during SEC play because he struggles defensively.
Well, he’s also scored 59 points in those 97 minutes, and the name of the game is scoring, so when you’ve got a team that isn’t full of natural shooters and slashers, at some point you have to bit the bullet and play the guys who can do that. Fox actually said exactly that before the season started, but when the games started he was reluctant to follow through.
Well, next year forward Rayshaun Hammonds, the second-best recruit of Fox’s tenure, arrives on campus. If he’s not starting he should be one of the first few off the bench and seeing heavy minutes. The team can’t afford not to play him.
Does this contradict the notion of doing everything you can to win right away in non-conference play? Perhaps, but when Georgia is struggling in non-conference play while younger players are sitting, you might as well have those young guys getting valuable game experience and see what happens.
3. SHORTEN THE ROTATION
It sounds impressive to say your bench goes 10 and 11 players deep. It’s just not that effective all the time, as we’ve seen with Georgia this year. As late as early February, Fox was still experimenting with lineups and going deep into the bench, trying to get the right combinations.
Frankly, that’s what the non-conference should be about. (And yes, that also contradicts the notion of doing everything to win right away. But every team in college basketball has the same timetable.)
When you have a shorter rotation – eight-deep is around the ideal – then each player knows their role, has a chance to develop rhythm in each game, and you maximize what those players can accomplish in each game. When you spread minutes too far, then the rhythm becomes a problem.
Seven years ago, when Georgia made the NCAAs in Fox’s second year, four players averaged over 32 minutes a game and only eight players averaged at least 10 minutes a game. A short bench doesn’t necessarily have to be a liability.
4. RECRUIT MORE SHOOTERS
It’s admirable that Fox, by all accounts, does things the clean way on the recruiting trail. That inevitably costs him some elite recruits. But other programs also win without recruiting five-stars, and they tend to do it this way: By recruiting a bunch of key players whose main ability is to shoot 3s.
Look at Notre Dame. That’s another football-first school with some history (Digger Phelps era) that has become a perennial NCAA tournament team because it gets tall guys who can stand on the 3-point line and hit 3s. Marquette, which came into Athens and got a win last December, did it by basically the same thing.
That doesn’t mean Fox should only recruit 3-point shooters. He should put more of an emphasis on it. This year’s recruiting class may help: Nicolas Claxton, listed at 6-foot-9, supposedly has that outside shooting ability. Sprinkle in 3-point shooters with well-rounded players the team is already recruiting (along the lines of Derek Ogbeide, Harris, Juwan Parker) and you’ve got a good team.
Whether it’s the graduate transfer market, or just an overlooked high school recruit, Georgia would do well this offseason – and future offseasons – to go find people whose overriding ability is to hit 3s. Even if they’re one-dimensional, that one dimension is the most important.
5. OTHERWISE …
Changes that needed to be made before have been made. Georgia is playing more up-tempo this season. Yes, the half-court offense is often a mess, but that could be fixed by suggestions 3 and 4. And recruiting has improved, in large part because Fox, after eight years on the job, has developed more contacts, and all three of his assistants are strong recruiters.
But there’s still time to do something else helpful: Win games this year. Two wins here at the SEC tournament would probably mean an NCAA bid. Failing that, a long run in the NIT might be scoffed at by many fans, but would allow younger players (like Crump) to continue to develop, and provide a lifting off point to next year.