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Post Getting Georgia back to the NCAA Tournament

Monday March 26, 2007

Georgia has made enough progress as a basketball program that we can seriously talk now about the things that stand in their way of returning to the NCAA Tournament. The Dawgs have added four or five wins to their total in each of the past two seasons, but we’re going to find out that adding each additional win from here on out will become marginally more difficult. Going from, say, 13 to 17 wins means you can beat another middle-of-the-road nonconference team and catch a conference opponent or two on a bad night. Going from 19 wins to 22 means that you can’t lose many that you’re expected to win and that you have to pick up a couple of games against higher-quality opponents in and out of the conference.

The goal for every year is a trip to the NCAA Tournament, but the urgency is turned up quite a bit next year. The pieces seem to be in place. That we can point to a handful of woulda-coulda-shoulda games makes us think that we were one or two wins away. But being so close and getting a taste of the bubble just makes the hunger that much stronger, and fans have heard "rebuilding" now for three seasons. Let’s look at a few factors that will determine whether or not Georgia can get over that hump next year.


I’ve talked about favoring the "Harrick approach" to nonconference scheduling ever since Georgia had far and away the nation’s toughest schedule in 2001. They didn’t get there by lining up Duke and UConn. They likely would have lost those games. In fact, they didn’t schedule many top 30 teams in 2001. The secret was to avoid the bad teams. Don’t schedule teams below the top 150.

This year Georgia played Southern (RPI 289), Jacksonville (RPI 198), South Carolina State (RPI 288), Alabama A&M (RPI 334), Gardner-Webb (RPI 268), and Kennesaw (277). Those games are boat anchors to a team’s perceived strength. The Dawgs couldn’t even count a win over Valdosta State (in terms of the RPI) because the Blazers are a Division 2 school.

"Hold on a second," you say. "Georgia had the #14 schedule according to Palm’s collegerpi.com. Why are you talking about schedule?" Sure they did. They play in the SEC East. The only SEC East team without a top 30 schedule was Florida. The strong conference schedule masks the fact that the nonconference schedule had problems. Having some really good teams mixed in with the dregs means that you’d better beat a team like Wisconsin if you want points for your schedule.

Georgia might have been a win or two away from the NCAA Tournament, but so were a lot of teams this year. Georgia’s March loss to Tennessee might have knocked them all the way from the brink of the tournament to a #4 seed in the NIT. Between the few questionable teams like Arkansas and Stanford that got in the tournament and the 1-4 NIT seeds, that’s a pool of 18-20 teams who had similar records and who all felt they were within a win or two of playing in the NCAA Tournament. Would a Top 10 schedule look more impressive among a similar group next year? You don’t have to play Kansas or UCLA to get there.

The games against teams like Wisconsin and the rumored game with Duke next year are fine and certainly high-visibility games for the program. It helps to win them; "good losses" are better than beating a sub-250 RPI team, but they’re still losses. There are 336 teams playing Division 1 ball. The key is to focus on those in the top 150. There is no reason to schedule the sub-200 teams. Look to the lower NCAA seeds and the NIT field. Georgia is 4-3 against NCAA six seeds or lower. They were 5-2 against the NIT field in 2005-2006, and three road losses made them 1-3 against the NIT field this year. No, they’re not Kansas. But Georgia can compete with these teams, win their share, and, most importantly, these opponents would boost and not drag down Georgia’s schedule and reputation before the selection committee.

The conference

Even if a team is improved, that improvement is still relative to the competition. The SEC East was a murder’s row this year. Four of the six teams received #8 seeds or higher in the NCAA Tournament, and three were still alive in the Sweet 16. The division should be tough again next year, but its strength will depend a lot on some key decisions. Player of the Year Byars is a senior, but other guys like Lofton, Morris, and Florida’s trio of Noah, Horford, and Brewer could all have an impact on next year’s SEC landscape.

We saw this year that the minimum "safe" conference record for NCAA consideration is probably 9-7. 8-8 is pushing it. 10-6 is a sure thing. The most traditional path to achieve that record is to win at home and steal a couple on the road. That strategy nearly worked for Georgia this year; a home win against Tennessee in the finale probably would have put them over the top (and dramatically altered the SEC Tournament seedings and matchups).

Georgia will have the usual home and away games with the SEC East. They will play Auburn, Mississippi State, and LSU from the SEC West on the road with Alabama, Ole Miss, and Arkansas in Athens. It’s possible that Georgia will still be picked 5th in the East next year. Tennessee has a solid core even without Lofton, and Vanderbilt will have a strong group of seniors. Everyone is starting to notice that Georgia could have a much improved team once again next year but still be facing a tough challenge to get to that nine and ten win threshold.


Sundiata Gaines assessed next year’s team for the AJC. "I think it will be the best team since I’ve been here," he said. "We’ve got some good freshmen coming in. The guys are older. We’ll have a lot of juniors and seniors with more experience. That should get us far as we’re trying to make the postseason again next year."

He’s right. He’ll be a senior along with Dave Bliss and Takais Brown. Billy Humphrey and Terrance Woodbury developed as this season went on and will join Mike Mercer as juniors. That’s a really solid group. Then you have role players like Cory Butler and Rashad Singleton. Albert Jackson will have a year of seasoning. There is a strong freshman class bringing help at point guard and in the frontcourt.

Just in terms of returning players, the one area that jumps out immediately for me is perimeter shooting. Levi Stukes graduates, adding his name to the legacy of sharpshooting 2-guards like D.A. Layne and Ezra Williams. Though Stukes shot for a relatively high percentage on average, he definitely had his hot and cold moments. Georgia’s fortunes usually followed.

The Dawgs’ options on the perimeter next year are 1) Gaines, 2) Humphrey, 3) Woodbury, 4) Mercer, 5) Butler. That surely looks like a good, deep group. But looking closer reveals a bit weaker picture. Gaines will be running the show at point, and while it isn’t rare for point guards to be scorers (Rashad Wright as a senior comes to mind), it’s asking a lot. Mercer struggled with his outside shot all year, and we don’t know how effective he will be after his recovery. Butler might play a larger role, but will still likely be a reserve. So Georgia’s fortunes on the perimeter will likely depend on the development of Humphrey and Woodbury. Both came along nicely as sophomores. Humphrey, established as a streaky set shooter from outside, started to show more creativity inside the arc. Woodbury was usually a good shot in the arm off the bench, and he continues to come along defensively. He had one of his best games in the season-ending loss at Air Force.

We know all five of those guys can hit a three-pointer. The question and key is consistency. Can someone not only step into Stukes’ role but extend it and become a scorer rather than just a shooter or a three-point specialist? It’s likely that Felton will begin the season with Bliss, Brown, and Gaines as sure starters. There are three guys (Mercer, Woodbury, and Humphrey) left for the remaining two positions. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Humphrey and Woodbury start as Mercer is eased back into action.

If you read the tea leaves on the message boards, Felton is looking for additional help once again from the junior college ranks, and it seems as if he has that 2-guard spot in mind. The comparison kicked around a lot this week has been Katu Davis; Davis was a JUCO transfer for the 1995 and 1996 seasons, and he was a big part of the tournament run in 1996. He also provides a reference for contrast between the three-point specialist and a guy who can score inside and out from that guard spot. If there’s another Katu out there, that kind of spark from the backcourt, along with Gaines’ steady play, could really transform this team.

The frontcourt will appreciate the help. Brown is the star, and his game could really take off next year if he works on those glacially-slow moves with the ball. After Brown, you have several guys who can give a minute here, a minute there. Bliss will hopefully continue to stay well. Singleton came along on defense, and it could mean something if he developed any kind of game on offense. Jackson was limited as a freshman, and an injury really slowed him down at the end of the year. There is a nice group of freshmen coming in for the frontcourt, but we shouldn’t place the expectation of big minutes on freshman.

You can see why pwd made "find another Takais Brown" one of his suggestions for next year. Given one scholarship, I’d still choose a scorer at guard first. Brown and the rest of the frontcourt were typically effective this year when Stukes (or on rare occasions someone else) was lighting it up from outside. With Stukes gone, I’m just not as confident yet that we can replace that potency.

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