Since 1995 - Insightful commentary on the Georgia Bulldogs

Post Lady Dogs take it to the giants

Monday February 27, 2006

Much of the postgame analysis of Georgia’s 74-61 win over Auburn yesterday focuses in on the fact that Georgia saw another first half lead disappear but withstood the opponent’s run this time and kept control of the game. It’s true – just as in the Baylor and Tennessee games, hot first-half jumpshots built a nice lead, but the lack of an inside game put the brakes on the scoring as the jumpshooting went cold in the second half.

I think a key fact getting overlooked is that Georgia retained control of the game by going to the basket. Now as Coach Landers admitted afterwards, Georgia didn’t mimic the entry passes and straight post-up offense Auburn had used to claw back into the game. Instead, they used penetration to get to the basket. Tasha Humphrey stopped the Auburn comeback with a drive from the elbow on which she scored and drew a foul. Janese Hardrick cut inside the Auburn defense on several occasions and found herself at the front of the rim.

The penetration was made possible because Humphrey and Megan Darrah, playing at the 4 and 5 spots, were effective enough from outside to draw Auburn’s sizeable post defenders away from the basket. Though Humphrey lacked the size to compete inside with KeKe “Aircraft” Carrier, Carrier was no match for Humphrey 15 feet from the basket. Humphrey was able to shoot over her or drive around her, and the result was a team-high 22 points despite a serious height disadvantage. Same thing with Hardrick. Since Humphrey and Darrah were able to draw the Auburn posts towards the perimeter, there was an opening for guard penetration, and Janese used some nice moves to weave through the forest and get to the basket.

I do wonder why Auburn stuck with a man defense. Auburn’s posts were of no use once they were drawn away from the basket, and that allowed Georgia to rely less on jumpshots and even get to the foul line to put the game away. Tennessee used a 3-2 zone to great effect against Georgia, and I think Auburn had the personnel to try the same. Auburn’s two posts could have controlled the lane, and they had enough size on the perimeter to pressure the outside shots.

In the end, possessions won the game for Georgia. They attempted 13 more field goals than Auburn (64-51). So even though Auburn was able to work the ball inside for higher-percentage shots, Georgia was able to overwhelm them by attempting more shots, even if they were lower-percentage jumpshots. How did Georgia get more possessions? The obvious answer is turnovers. Georgia forced 19 Auburn turnovers and committed a thrifty six of their own.

Another more hidden answer is rebounding. Although Auburn had a huge size advantage, they only outrebounded Georgia 36-30. Georgia was able to work for 11 offensive rebounds – two more than Auburn – and offensive rebounds mean additional possessions and field goal attempts. The kicker is that at least half of those offensive rebounds came from Georgia’s tiny guards. Again – where were Auburn’s posts to clean up on the glass? Auburn coach Nell Fortner seems to have made a strategic mistake with her tremendous size advantage.

Post The ping means spring!

Monday February 27, 2006

Getting excited about a college baseball series in February is like talking about the basketball NCAA Tournament during the first week in November. We’re talking about six games into a season that might go 50 or 60 games.

But when you start the season 6-0 and in the process sweep a Top 10 team that had already swept mighty Texas, it’s worth some attention and congratulations. Georgia lost plenty of close games in a 2005 season that came up just short of the postseason, and it’s not too early to think that this sweep of San Diego will impress any selection committee down the road. Friday’s 1-0 win is already a classic moment for the season.

The Diamond Dawgs will likely be ranked after this sweep, and it’s up to them how this return to the polls will end up. The remaining nonconference schedule is still extremely difficult (including a trip out to the west coast and Southern Cal), and the SEC circuit will be brutal as always. For those of us who suffered through the agonizing close losses last season, this early turn of events in 2006 is very welcome. We hope it keeps up – the SEC standings and Georgia’s postseason fate will likely depend on their ability to flip a few more of those one-run games in their favor.

Post The best they could do?

Monday February 27, 2006

OK – I know Mississippi State had a nice frontcourt advantage on Georgia. They drew fouls at a staggering rate and dunked like they were playing on an 8-foot goal.

I am still pretty – no…VERY – disappointed in Georgia’s defensive response. The strategy seemed to be to rely on turnovers to stop Mississippi State’s offense. That worked more or less during the first half, and the “other” Bulldogs helped out by shooting from outside and staying away from their advantage. Georgia was also lighting it up from outside.

But as the strategy broke down and Mississippi State got dunk after layup inside, there was no Georgia adjustment. They didn’t pack a zone into the box and surround the entry pass with four players. They didn’t force the midrange jumpshot. I can’t really identify what, if anything, they did to make some other player beat them. This wasn’t a team like Florida that would bury you from outside if you played a sagging zone. This was Mississippi State – a team at the bottom of the SEC West with a good post player or two and nothing special at guard.

I contrast that with the Lady Dog strategy I saw yesterday that matched a lineup of 6-7, 6-5, and 6-4 with 6-2, 6-1, 5-11 and no depth behind that. I saw double-teams and fundamental positioning that made entry passes and rebounds more difficult for the taller player. In short, I saw them try something despite a serious size disadvantage. It doesn’t matter that the bigger player scored anyway – the disruptions were effective enough times to prevent complete domination and create turnovers, and the rebounding margin was close enough not to be a deciding factor.

I’m not disappointed nor surprised that Georgia’s men lost to a better frontcourt. I am disappointed that we think it’s a foregone conclusion that Georgia should just shrug its shoulders and accept another career-high when facing a good frontcourt. Even with lesser talent, there are strategic ways to frustrate and deny an inside game. They might require you getting out of man-to-man or some other comfort zone, but they are there. At the very least, let’s see some urgency and desperation and strategy.

Post NIT! NIT!

Friday February 24, 2006

In the ugliest of games, rivaling only the 45-42 loss to Alabama in 2004, Georgia completed a season sweep of the defending NIT champs last night. With the win, a berth in this year’s NIT seems much more likely. Another win at Mississippi State next week should lock it up.

Why is the freaking NIT such a big deal? It is the postseason. It is a recognizable sign of progress from last season. It is the chance to keep playing and practicing for another week. It is a reward, though small, for the players who were asked to play above their ability and experience for the past two seasons.

It is also a baseline. As a baby step of progress for this program, it should be the last time for a while that the NIT is a goal or an acceptable outcome. Almost all of the current team will return next year. Recruiting will continue to add more pieces. The unholy trinity of little depth, little experience, and little talent hasn’t been completely exorcised but is fading away.

A berth in the NIT this year would be a good achievement for the team and a nice sign of progress – so long as that’s what it is. A step along the path of progress and not a stopping point or plateau. The fan base is hungry for more, and the coach and players surely are.

Let’s finish this season strong, recognize the improvement, and get ready for a real move forward next year.

Post Four UGA teams currently ranked #1

Friday February 24, 2006

As a followup to the tennis post and since it seems to be a day in the Bulldog nation to spread some love around, it’s worth noting that four Georgia teams are currently ranked at the top of their sport:

  • Gymnastics
  • Men’s tennis
  • Men’s golf
  • Women’s swimming and diving

It’s not a surprise that any of those programs are ranked where they are. All have legacies of national titles and are consistently competitive. Gymnastics, men’s golf, and women’s swimming and diving are defending NCAA national champions, and the men’s tennis team recently won an indoor national title.

It’s likely that several national titles could come from this group. The Swim Dawgs will be competing for theirs soon. The Gym Dogs continue to beat quality opponents. The tennis team hasn’t lost yet in this young season. The golf team returns a strong core from the national title squad.

We all understand that #1 rankings don’t always translate into national titles. A national championship – even a conference championship – in any sport requires excellent preparation and execution and even a little luck sometimes. A fall during a gymnastics routine or a bad day of winds on the golf course can humble the best teams. But these four programs aren’t at the top as a fluke, and each has to be considered among the favorites to remain at the top at the end of the year.

Post The best Bulldog athlete you probably don’t know about

Friday February 24, 2006

Georgia has no shortage of standout student-athletes. Tasha Humphrey, Courtney Kupets, DJ Shockley…all Bulldogs known and respected not only among our own fans but also nationwide among the media and fans who follow those sports. In other extremely successful programs like golf and swimming, there are also standouts who just don’t get the press and exposure to the fan base.

You might have heard that this is a pretty good time for Georgia men’s tennis. Manny Diaz usually has a competitive squad, but they recently added the ITA Team Indoor national title to their trophy case. With that indoor title, the Georgia program has at sometime or other won every bit of championship hardware available to an NCAA tennis program. The legacy of Diaz and Dan Magill is rock solid.

As a result of that title and an unblemished record, the tennis Dawgs are now ranked #1 in the nation. Of course a strong team like that needs more than one strong player. Strahinja Bobusic was just named SEC Player of the Week, and a total of four Bulldogs are nationally ranked singles players.

But the name most associated with the team these days is John Isner. Isner is the #1 singles player in the nation and one of the more compelling Bulldog athletes to come through Athens lately. The first thing you notice about Isner is his size. His 6’9″ frame would put him at home in Stegeman Coliseum, and it is imposing on the tennis court. At that height, and with that reach, his serve almost seems to come straight down. His first serve is devastating and nearly impossible to return when accurate. Obviously his game must be more complete than just a good serve to earn the #1 individual ranking, but the serve is the first thing the novice observer notices.

Isner is also an accomplished doubles player. He and Antonio Ruiz won the NCAA doubles national title last spring.

I discovered during my time at UGA that you could do a lot worse than spending spring afternoons at Foley Field or at the tennis complex. If you get the chance this spring, go check out Isner and the #1 tennis Dawgs. Even if you’re not a big tennis person, just watching Isner serve is likely to get a “daaaaaaaaamn” out of you and a bit of appreciation for one of the best athletes currently wearing the Red and Black.

Post So much for that

Thursday February 16, 2006

The scenario I talked about last week has now come true.

We’re at a very awkward time right now. It’s easy to leave behind the days of “hey, we got an SEC win isn’t that great?!” and try to leap straight to the chest-thumping “show me the respect we command”. If we don’t beat UT and/or Kentucky at Rupp, we’re right back to 4-7 in the league and talking about how we should be happy that we doubled our win total from last year.

So here we are. 4-7. The Banner-Herald concludes, “The whispers of the Bulldogs earning an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament likely will be silenced.” Georgia is back in the basement of the SEC East, if only by a half-game.

Let’s back up and say that this isn’t an unexpected condition or result. Tennessee is the best team in the SEC, and Kentucky was nearly a ten-point favorite at Rupp. What’s changed in the past week is that the perception of the current condition is a bit of a letdown, a disappointment. Georgia had a meager two-game winning streak, Coach Felton let out a bit of his frustration and eagerness to get the program on top, and fans – whether defensive or fired up over Felton’s comments – were at least talking about basketball and checking out the program.

But now the Dawgs have lost two straight, and though the Dawgs might not have been expected or favored to win either, there was some plainly bad basketball in there. The inability to bring the ball upcourt against pressure, missed foul shots killing a rally, balls bouncing off heads after a pick-and-roll, and minutes upon minutes of ineffective scoreless offense have people asking, “this was the team whose NCAA Tournament credentials we were talking about a week ago?”.

Now we have Vanderbilt at home this weekened – a winnable game that could give the team a nice shot in the arm and move them out of the SEC East cellar. A nice home crowd would be a welcome change from the “Memorial Magic” Georgia overcame in their earlier win at Vanderbilt. It’s not that the past week cost us a sellout for the Vandy game, but these two very high-profile losses ensure that the only interest in the Vanderbilt game (and probably the South Carolina game) will come from the diehard fans who have been there all along.

Making a big deal over the crowd for the Tennessee game should not have been the focus of the moment. That was a set-up, and it has caused unnecessary disappointment and grumbling among the fan base. Instead, it was the beginning of the audition for crowds in the remaining three home games which Georgia could win and really add to the accomplishments of this season. With the recent performance of the team, Coach Felton can be sure of lukewarm support the rest of the way this season. Hopefully a strong finish to this season can drum up some momentum and support for next season when this entire team will return and add some frontcourt bulk. A winning record over these last five games and an NIT berth would be impressive and clear progress over last season, and hopefully that message can get out over the disappointment of not making the NCAA Tournament.

Looking ahead, only Florida would seem like a heavy favorite over Georgia. Mississippi State should be a win, but that’s on the road. Arkansas, Vandy, and SC all could go either way. Georgia’s spread could go anywhere from 5-11 to 8-8. Perception-wise, that’s a pretty big potential swing.

Post In defense of Dennis Felton

Monday February 13, 2006

Other than your family, think about the thing(s) in life about which you are most passionate. It might be a career, golf, Civil War diningware, but for most of us it’s the Dawgs – specifically Georgia football. Have you ever tried to explain to a non-believer what the High Holy Feast Day of National Signing Day is all about? Do you stare blankly when asked why you are rushing to set up tailgate at 7:45 AM for a 7:45 PM kickoff? Are you frustrated when the casual Georgia fans in your office don’t know who the third-string linebackers are? When you start talking about the Dawgs, do you notice how others smile uncomfortably while backing away slooooowly, taking care not to make any sudden motions?

Welcome to Dennis Felton’s world. The man lives basketball. NCAA limits on practice time were made for Felton – sleep gets in the way of time that could be spent improving the program. Preseason military-style training is a nice warmup for practice. Basketball consumes Felton to a flaw, and that flaw comes to the surface every now and then.

It’s an obsession, and that’s not necessarily a bad trait for a coach. You certainly prefer that over a guy just punching the clock. And let’s be honest – Georgia basketball needs its coach to be obsessive and driven about the job. Anyone else would have been discouraged and on anti-depressants within a week of taking the position.

But that same drive and passion for the game leads to impatience. Indifference and apathy are foreign concepts. You don’t get that a fan base that keeps getting let down after every limited morsel of basketball success doesn’t jump on board at your first signs of progress and promise. You can’t process why you have to beg people to come see SEC basketball when you’ve worked your whole life to get to this opportunity. If successful at Georgia, Felton will have been responsible for not only a good basketball team but also a cultural shift.

I’ve been right there with the “just stick a cork in it and coach” camp, but I still have to recognize (and appreciate) missionary zeal when I see it. His job isn’t just to coach the team. You don’t get the passionate coach willing to invest four years in resurrecting a dismal program without the rest of the package. Someone not far away from developing a competitive team wants the fan support and administrative support to be right there alongside his effort, and getting those are often left up to him.

Felton can’t be inflexible in this effort though. His success has been too fleeting to really sway this fickle fan base. GSB picked up on and developed an observation of mine last week that Felton can’t afford to jump too quickly through the baby steps that will build fan support. Some of his strongest supporters, and I include myself in that group, have been more than willing to be patient as he rebuilds the program. By getting ahead of himself, he runs the risk of people demanding results much sooner than they can reasonably be delivered. The team is certainly improved this year, and anyone can see the progress made and the roadmap for more improvement ahead. It’s obvious. But we’re not there yet, and casual would-be converts aren’t going to put the emotional investment behind the program to stick with it through the losses.

It’s a cop-out for us to suggest that Felton cool it and recognize that the football-crazy fan base won’t ever embrace basketball. That’s just not true. Stegeman was rocking during the Jarvis Hayes era and even into Felton’s first year when the “guy in the red shirt” entered Bulldog lore. But as GSB points out today, Felton doesn’t seem to appreciate that Georgia’s basketball fan base is once-bitten, twice shy and has been for decades. Time after time, the rug has been pulled out. Those fans might be willing at some point to come back for more abuse, but the best thing Felton can do now is to get this team into the postseason – even the NIT – and do well. The fans will notice and be ready for the next steps.

(And as I said earlier, it could be worse. You could build and sustain a program consistently ranked among the nation’s best, fully understand and be able to communicate with the Georgia fan base, have a Hall of Fame resume, and still have to rely on Tennessee fans to sell out your games. Welcome to Andy Landers’ world.)

Post Felton’s got it made

Monday February 13, 2006

Dennis Felton’s got a much easier job than he thinks. He can take a team below .500 in the SEC, make a bit of noise in the press, and get tons of attention and discussion going. Passionate fans will defend the notion that Georgia can be successful in basketball and football. They’ll get indignant about Tennessee bandwagoners buying up tickets. In the end, Felton got his sellout and vocal crowd.

Meanwhile, Andy Landers could offer free beer, and the fans would still stay away in droves.

Post What’s happened at FSU?

Friday February 3, 2006

HeismanPundit has noted (and didn’t pull many punches) that FSU isn’t doing what it used to do with quality recruiting classes. Specifically, the ‘Noles haven’t produced a single consensus All-American since 2000 after producing 18 during its incredible run in the 1990s. As HP shows, that’s one hell of a clean break, and it’s not because the talent pipeline coming into Tallahassee has dried up.

When you get into the whys, there are several things you can point to. The ACC has become more competitive, and the addition of three good programs has made it difficult for FSU to even land someone on the all-ACC first team, let alone the All-American team.

But the year 2000 as a delineating point is just too specific to be a coincidence after that kind of run. Let’s look at two key events:

  • Post-1999 season: LB coach Chuck Amato leaves to become the head coach of his alma mater NC State
  • Post-2000 season: OC Mark Richt leaves to become the head coach at Georgia. Richt brings FSU strength coach Dave Van Halanger to Athens as well as Barry Every who plays a very important administrative role in evaluating talent and coordinating recruiting efforts.

So while defensive mastermind Mickey Andrews remains, FSU lost in the span of two years both the source of its nasty disposition on defense and the offensive mastermind who trained two Heisman-winning quarterbacks in under ten years. They also lose Van Halanger who is as much spiritual guru and mentor as he is master of the weight room. How many strength coaches are among those leading his team onto the field?

Does it begin to make sense? Under Andrews, FSU maintains a defensive edge against most teams but loses much of the intimidation factor (now in the form of countless unnecessary personal foul penalties in Raleigh). The toll on offense has been far greater as the ‘Noles are still able to out-athlete many teams but have struggled in the post-Richt era to find a capable quarterback who is at once stable physically, mentally, and I suppose in some cases even spiritually.

This isn’t to gloat over the relative “misfortunes” of FSU, but it’s common sense that recruiting and reloading on the coaching staff is as important as – if not more important than – the quality of the kids on the field. Jeff Bowden could coach for many schools, but he’s the three-star redshirting project following the All-American offensive coordinator. Georgia fans are still undecided about the impact of losing DC Brian VanGorder. The ability for Bowden to keep Andrews (not to mention recruiting coordinator John Lilly) on staff has been a big reason for their long-term success.

Programs lose coaches all the time, and there’s usually an impact. Of course the impact should be expected to be much greater if several coaches are lost in a short time. Southern Cal will be an interesting experiment to watch. We’ll see if the departures of Chow and Orgeron have long-term effects as they continue to rope in top talent. Will they fade? Will the abundance of talent overshadow any drop off in coaching? Or will the replacements prove to be personnel decisions every bit as impressive as their ability to reload at key positions on the field?

PS…it says something about where FSU has been and the level of success to which they were accustomed that we are talking this way about a program which has played in three BCS bowls since the 2001 season. All but about five programs would give anything to “fade” that badly!

Post Recruiting zen

Friday February 3, 2006

Far too much recruiting coverage out there to add anything specific about the solid class.

Even three or four years ago, the month of January was controlled chaos in the Georgia recruiting process. There would be a parade of 10 or so prospects into town each weekend, and fans studied the basketball schedule not because they cared about basketball but because it provided a chance to scrutinize the prospects in town, note who was sitting with whom, and interpret every facial expression as a hint as to how the weekend was going. January was critical. Less than half the class had committed, and it was necessary that each weekend go well and produce commitments.

We still saw some of this circus in 2005 during the weekend of Bryan Evans’ visit and commitment. But in 2006, the interest in the January visits of high-profile prospects Rashad Jones and Stafon Johnson barely rose above casual concern. Why? Two reasons. First, and probably most importantly, Jones and Johnson had pretty solid home-state favorites. Georgia felt solid about Jones despite the best efforts of LSU, and even the most optimistic recruitnik saw the long odds in winning a recruiting battle with Southern Cal for a California prospect. Second, Jones and Johnson were icing on what was already a very nice recruiting class. Each is an outstanding prospect and looks likely to help any program they considered, but neither would make or break the Georgia class. So the sense of urgency which usually comes with January visits was noticably missing.

There is a definite tradeoff when much of your signing class commits early. There could be injuries. Still-developing juniors and young seniors might not improve during their senior season and fizzle. They might begin looking around and require hand-holding as the recruiting process drags on. Then there’s the case of Texas. You might not be able to cash in on a likely recruiting shot in the arm from a national title if many of your scholarships are already promised (nice problem to have).

When you’re talking about early commitments like Matthew Stafford or Brandon Wood, you’re not taking huge risks. Georgia’s pre-January commitments were good enough to quickly move Georgia among the Top 10 recruiting classes, and they maintained and even improved that position with late commitments from Jones and Moreno. Meanwhile, instead of pouring a ton of energy into January recruiting, the Georgia staff went all-out on the few specific remaining targets and was able to begin using the momentum from another SEC title to target the Class of 2007. The number of known offers to this next class is already well into double-digits and climbing.

Someone on Signing Day said to me, almost with a bit of wistfulness, that there was just no last-minute recruiting drama this year. The late decisions of Moreno and Jones were stories worth watching, but most felt confident that they’d end up in Athens. Calm years like this are surely the exception even for top programs. Calling it “easy” or “dull” insults the effort put in by the staff and ignores the amount of work necessary to have this kind of class fall into place with plenty of time to spare. Still, while noting some of the drama and disappointment among some of Georgia’s regional rivals, we’ll take this kind of “boring” every year. Great job, coaches.