ATHENS – Georgia was losing to what appeared to be an inferior team. Its offense was sloppy, and lacked any rhythm. And Mark Fox laid part of the blame at himself.
“I was running too many guys in and out,” Mark Fox said, with a bit of disgust. “I mean, I contributed to it. I played too many guys. We just had no rhythm offensively.”
It’s easier for a coach to admit such a thing after a win, which was the case. After that lackluster first half, Georgia rallied to avoid a bad loss on Tuesday night, beating Mississippi State, 79-72.
So things may be looking up for the Bulldogs (15-11 overall, 6-7 in the SEC), who could vault right back onto the bubble with an upset Saturday of Kentucky.
But here’s the thing about Fox and the Bulldogs: They still haven’t figured themselves out. Fox is still tinkering with lineups and making multiple starting changes. It’s mid-February, but the Bulldogs are shuffling players like it’s November.
There’s some good in that. As Mississippi State head coach Ben Howland said: “They have a lot of players to choose from.”
But it’s also seemed at times, including Tuesday’s first half, that all the tinkering has impacted Georgia’s rhythm, especially in the half-court offense. The evidence from Tuesday’s game bears that out:
First half: Georgia played 11 different players, and trailed 32-28 at halftime.
Second half: Georgia only used seven players, and out-scored Mississippi State 51-40.
It wasn’t just the rotation. J.J. Frazier going from zero to 17 points helped too. So did better 3-point defense. But you also have to wonder if all those facts are intertwined: A shorter rotation means players know their roles more, have a chance to develop a rhythm, and have a better idea of who’s going where on the court.
The feel-good story of last Saturday’s win at Tennessee was Tyree Crump, the highly-touted freshman guard who, after a season of sporadic playing time, got his first start and poured in 13 points, including five in a row down the stretch.
Then the starting lineups were announced Tuesday and … no Crump. He played just five minutes, all in the first half, coming out after hitting a 3.
Instead it was sophomore E’Torrion Wilridge, seemingly out of nowhere getting his first college start. Fox’s decision ended up being validated, as Wilridge played well defensively, and had six rebounds and four assists.
Fox was asked about all the tinkering on Tuesday night. He downplayed the starting lineup changes: Freshman Jordan Harris, who at one point started 12 straight games, wasn’t benched, he just got sick. (But hasn’t regained his starting spot.) Sophomore Mike Edwards, who started at Tennessee, was questionable coming into the Mississippi State game with a sprained ankle, so he didn’t start. (But still played 21 minutes and had several key baskets.)
“We looked at the best match-up, and we thought E’Torrion gave us that,” Fox said. “These guys have totally bought in, and the guys that started the other night that didn’t start tonight had no issue with it. When Juwan (Parker) didn’t start at Tennessee, he was great. He played terrific. They’re all in, and they want us to do whatever’s best to win.”
Howland said he didn’t think Georgia’s lineup changes affected his team.
“He’s just altering his gameplan based on the personnel of the other team,” Howland said. “The bottom line is those two big guys (Yante Maten and Derek Ogbeide) are starting every game. (J.J.) Frazier’s starting every game. Parker has started every game but one. I don’t know what the reason was behind that. But those four guys are pretty consistent.”
Wilridge said the playing time changes have “a little effect,” but that he trusted in the coach’s decisions game to game.
“We do these matchups in practice too. So the chemistry is not really a problem,” Wilridge said. “It’s just the schemes and everything.”
When he got his chance Tuesday night, Wilridge stayed in there, playing a career-high 29 minutes. And even in that rough first half, Fox said Wilridge was “the one bright spot” for his team defensively. Fox took a risk on him, and it paid off.
Does it guarantee he’ll start again on Saturday? If you’ve been watching this year’s team, you know the answer.