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Post Puleo’s departure highlights Lady Dogs’ personnel problems

Wednesday April 8, 2009

When the Lady Dogs starters get introduced before games, they run out along a red carpet that lists the years of Georgia’s Final Four and SEC championship seasons. That carpet hasn’t needed to be updated for years. Since coming up devastatingly short of both an SEC Tournament title and a Final Four trip in 2004, the Lady Dogs haven’t come close to challenging for either.

It’s been ten years since Georgia’s last visit to the Final Four – the longest drought under Andy Landers. The last SEC championship for the program was in 2001. It’s not that the program has disappeared in the meantime. They’ve made the NCAA Tournament every year and only last season had a streak of Sweet 16 appearances snapped. But there’s no question that the program has slipped, and getting it back won’t be a simple one-year fix.

When Dennis Felton was let go earlier in the year, it was easy to conclude that recruiting and attrition were at the heart of the problems that led to the end of the Felton era. Other than a brief period in 2006-2007, Felton was never able to assemble and retain anything resembling a complete team. Signing and keeping quality players has been an issue with the men’s team for decades. But now the same problems are creeping into the women’s program despite a tradition of success.

The Georgia women’s basketball team announced yesterday that sophomore guard Angela Puleo would be leaving the program. Puleo was put into a tough situation out of the gate as a freshman. In most programs, she would have been brought along as a situational 3-point shooter off the bench. But the roster situation at Georgia thrust her into a starting role immediately, and it was impossible to fill the shoes of Cori Chambers, the most prolific outside shooter in Georgia history.

Puleo’s departure means that the entire 2007 recruiting class of four players, rated by some as a top 10 class, has dissolved and will contribute nothing to the program as juniors and seniors. Puleo will transfer. Jasmine Lee was dismissed. Nicole Stroud’s career was cut short by injuries. Top 20 prospect Brittany Carter barely contributed as a freshman and transferred after one season.

The impact of the evaporation of that 2007 class is more significant when placed alongside the classes that surrounded it. Put it this way: Georgia will have a nice senior class next season of Angel Robinson, Ashley Houts, and Christy Marshall. There will only be three other players on the roster with any meaningful experience – starting or otherwise. Once again incoming freshman will be counted on for significant minutes.

For a number of reasons we’ll get into below, Georgia had hit a dry patch in recruiting. The obvious example is Lawrenceville’s Maya Moore leading UConn to the national title last night. But it’s no longer just other elite programs prevailing over Georgia for local talent. Georgia Tech welcomed the #6 class in the nation in 2008 which featured three players from Georgia all rated among the nation’s top 100 prospects. Meanwhile the Lady Dogs’ sole signee in 2008 was a guard from Alabama. That’s turned around this year with a top 5 class, but can the staff keep it up? And can they avoid the attrition in the incoming class that wiped out the promising 2007 class?

Attrition is as much a part of recruiting as actually signing the classes, and it’s a problem that has hit the Georgia women’s program hard in recent years. Even if Georgia missed out on other prospects, those they’ve signed have been plenty good enough to keep the program competitive. The trouble has been keeping them around. Below is a list of some of the players Georgia has signed but lost over the past few seasons before their eligibility expired. Some played for a while; others never made it into school.

  • Recina Russell – Big 10 freshman of the year
  • Brittany Carter – national Top 20 prospect
  • Amber Holt – JUCO All-American
  • Angela Puleo – starting shooting guard
  • Jasmine Lee
  • Nicole Stroud
  • Erica Brown – McDonald’s All-American guard

That’s quite a team in and of itself. It’s unfair to put this attrition all on the coaches. Recruiting is an inexact science, and you can never predict who will be able to cut it at the next level. Injuries, academics, and personal issues are risks you take, and they’ve all played a role in this attrition. Regardless, the sum of this attrition and the results in recruiting has been to leave the program with little depth at best and with critical holes at worst.

Part of the problem has had to do with turnover on the staff. In 2005, longtime assistant and top recruiter Michael Shafer was hired away by Richmond. Since then the Georgia staff has been a story of on-the-job training for a number of inexperienced assistants. I don’t think there’s any coincidence that the dropoff in talent has happened under an unsettled and green staff. Finally in 2007 Landers hired Kim Hairston away from Cal, and Hairston’s experience began to pay off and was in part responsible for the incoming top 10 recruiting class. The question remains whether enough has been done to shore up the staff. It’s still relatively inexperienced, and player development has been questionable. With Mark Fox’s arrival on the men’s side, we’re getting a reminder just how important the composition of the staff is to success on the court and in recruiting.

As is always the case with stories like this, bad luck seems to find its way into the picture. Mike Mercer’s knee injury brought a cruel end to a promising season and was, in retrospect, the beginning of the end for Dennis Felton. Similarly, an unprecedented rash of injuries to the Lady Dogs frontcourt in 2005 affected the program for years. Talented players like Tasha Humphrey and Megan Darrah were forced to play out of position for much of their careers, and those teams were never complete enough to advance beyond the Sweet 16.

If all of this sounds like a lack of faith in Andy Landers, it shouldn’t. I believe he’s more than capable of turning it around. The addition of Hairston and the incoming recruiting class is evidence that there’s plenty of fight left. It’s more than just one class and one season though. The top 5 class coming in will temporarily raise the talent level, but the departure of the rising senior class will require another big recruiting effort in order to sustain anything that’s started next season.

One Response to 'Puleo’s departure highlights Lady Dogs’ personnel problems'

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  • I would like to say thank you to Coach Landers for the many amazing moments / memories his teams have brought to the university.

    However with that being said, there is no other person more responsible for the steady decline of the women’s program, than he is.

    In my opinion, Coach Landers benefitted tremndously in the early years, from coaching during a time, when the womens game just wasn’t as competative as it is now.
    And his inability to address and resolve the numeorus issues / weaknesses of his recent teams, clearly demonstrate this…

    The Solution;
    Now that the men’s team have their Coach of the Future in place, it is time to address the woeful situation with the women’s team!

    I plead with Damon Evans, to promote Coach Landers into an administrative position and start an immediate search for someone that has proven they can win consistently in todays game !!!!!!!

    This move is so long overdue….