NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Whenever a star player goes out, the search for upside begins: Surely this will help the team in the end, people say, because the supporting cast plays more improves, then the star player returns and – voila, a better team.
It doesn’t always work that way. That was fairly evident on Thursday as the Georgia basketball team got Yante Maten back, and the team still mucked its way through a win that required Tennessee missing a last-second 3.
But in the locker room after the game, there was a sign of how things have changed over the past two weeks. Whereas reporters most of this season really only needed to talk to two players – Maten and J.J. Frazier – this time they searched out the increasingly important supporting cast: Not just the venerable Juwan Parker, but youngsters Tyree Crump, E’Torrion Wilridge, Mike Edwards, Derek Ogbeide and Jordan Harris.
They were asked several versions of the same question: Are you a better team having played more than two weeks without your best player? Or was the disjointed effort on Thursday – which clearly would’ve resulted in a loss to Kentucky, the next opponent – a result of fitting Maten back in?
Crump, the never-afraid-to-shoot freshman, indicated it was a little of both.
“We had to kind of figure things out, because we’re trying to get the ball to Yante again, because he’s one of the best players in the league,” Crump said. “Guards had to step up and play (with him out). It’s not just about guards now.”
Maten played a surprising amount of minutes (26) and was effective scoring-wise (12 points). But he also committed five turnovers, and only had five rebounds.
“He showed some signs that he was a little rusty,” Wilridge said. “But we’ve all- Tyree, Jordan, Mike, Turtle and myself, I think we’ve all made strides since Yante has been out for that amount of time.”
Georgia (now 19-13 after beating Tennessee) went 3-1 in the full games without Maten, and nearly beat Kentucky after losing him 95 seconds into that game.
“You’ve got to face a challenge, and I think we did that very well,” Parker said. “Different guys stepped on different nights for a two-week stretch. Some guys stepped up every night. It just gives us individuals and the team as a whole a new level of confidence.”
Wilridge has started three games in Maten’s absence, and also started Thursday. He may come off the bench again Friday, as Maten looked ready to start again. But Wilridge proved his worth, offering an athletic presence at power forward, and good passing ability – he began the second half with two straight assists to Derek Ogbeide.
“It’s definitely been a confidence booster, because I’ve had to contribute, especially on the defensive end,” Wilridge said. “Because Yante is a solid defender and a good rebounder, so I had to step up and fill his shoes. It’s just really been a confidence booster.”
But Georgia is still very much dependent on Frazier, who on Thursday led his team in points, rebounds, assists, minutes, shots from the floor, shots from the free throw line, 3-pointers attempted, and number of references to the Seton Hall game two years ago.
(That was after he was asked if he’d ever led the team in rebounding, and without missing a beat Frazier pulled out that 11-rebound game his sophomore year. Because players remember their stats.)
And head coach Mark Fox, when asked directly if the team was better now than the last time it played Kentucky, admitted he wasn’t sure. Fox harkeneed back to his first year at Georgia, when then-sophomore forward Trey Thompkins – whose game is very similar to Maten – went out early in the season for a few games. During a game against Saint Louis, its coach Rick Majerus told Fox that, “When the big kid comes back and is healthy, you’re going to be a better team.”
But that was early in the season. This time, the return of the star player comes with a time crunch. Fox said when Maten hurt that he had to “reinvent” themselves. Now that he’s back, there’s a balance between going back to what worked but also embracing how they improved without their star.
“I would say that when Yante is back to being Yante, we’ll end up being a better team because of this,” Fox said. “How quickly that happens, I’m not sure.”