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Post Two starters face suspension, but story is still developing

Thursday March 29, 2012

By now most know that two more defensive starters are facing multiple-game suspensions for failed drug tests. Rather than rehash (npi) the details, a few random thoughts:

The story is a bit unique in that the news wasn’t broken by an announcement from the program. Of course news sites break stories all the time before there’s confirmation, but there’s usually something concrete like a police report on which to base the story. This is a purely internal issue that was brought to light before the program had anything to say about it.

I don’t mean to say that Georgia was caught unprepared, but it’s clear that they weren’t ready to comment on the situation yet. That might tell us that the story was broken during a process that’s not yet complete. It’s worth remembering that no suspensions have been announced by the program yet. It’s also worth remembering that the news report everyone is referencing might also not be comprehensive.

Along those lines, we’re learning additional details – at least from Rambo’s side. (If Rambo’s accounts of both of his infractions are accurate, that has to be some of the worst luck I’ve ever heard.) If all that has him facing a four-game suspension, I wouldn’t blame him for at least considering the NFL Supplemental Draft. He did consider leaving after his junior year, but there were very specific reasons and goals for which he came back.

Rambo was humble and contrite after his one-game suspension a year ago.

“I broke a team rule,” he said. “It was a selfish mistake. I will not allow it to happen anymore. It was a big mistake that I did. It messed up the team goal by me sitting out that one game. I’m not saying we could have won, but I know I could have helped the team out as much as I can and the results of the game could have been different.”

That doesn’t mean that he couldn’t have a moment of weakness on Spring Break or behave like many other college students at any given moment, but that’s also the sign of a guy who understands what’s at stake.

Yes, there’s the usual hand-wringing about the discipline on the Georgia team, and that’s been the case just about every year since “Ring-gate” and the suspensions of a number of players leading up to the 2003 season. If this annual ritual is a sign of a program out of control or if “fire the coach” or “kick them off the team” is your first response, it might be time to follow another sport.

Yes, Georgia plays by different rules than most everyone else in the SEC. That’s comforting, but it’s irrelevant. There’s no lack of education or any misunderstanding within the program as to Georgia’s policies on these things. Work towards unification of the rules if you like – I’d be all for it – but don’t let that be an excuse for failure to comply with the policies in place now.

Granting for a moment the worst case and the absense of these starters from the SEC opener, it is significant. Georgia’s thin secondary could be down at least two, if not three, starters for the game at Missouri against an offense that can be explosive. There is at least the depth at ILB to deal with Ogletree’s absence, though of course the team is better with him in there.

A silver lining? Since no one was arrested, there at least won’t be any Fulmer Cup points from all of this.

Post Dr. Saturday’s questions on a playoff

Thursday March 29, 2012

We’ll continue the playoff theme for another post. Graham Watson at Dr. Saturday asks if conference commissioners are on the right track with postseason reform. Whether we need to change the postseason at all has been beaten around enough, but we can focus in on a few key questions.

Would we play some games on campus or all games on neutral sites?
If some games are on campus, is that too much of a competitive advantage?

An advantage? Yes, and that’s a good thing. Too much? No. With a schedule of only 12 games, we can still salvage a very large role for the regular season. Complete a successful regular season, and you host. Stumble a time or two, and you’re off to Tuscaloosa for the opening round. There should be consequences – both positive and negative – to performance during the regular season, and earning the right to host should be one of them. 1-AA gets this correct.

I’m also sympathetic to the complaints of northern and midwestern schools. These neutral sites, especially if they involve the bowl and BCS sites, would tilt heavily in favor of southern schools. If you’re a Big 10 team that’s earned a top seed (work with me here), you shouldn’t be sent to New Orleans to face an at-large SEC school. Make the lower seed play a December game above 40 degrees latitude.

If all games are at neutral sites, would fans be able to travel to two games in a row?

Some would, most wouldn’t. But these things aren’t done for the fans, right? Just look at the first few rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament. Great TV, but unless you have UNC playing in Greensboro, crowds are sparse. Smaller schools would struggle to bring numbers in most any situation, and fans of schools with the top seeds would likely budget for the subsequent rounds. It’s not just fans – the logistics of moving an 85-person team, the support staff, and things like marching bands also need to be considered. Play the first rounds on campus, and those logistical issues and expenses are halved.

Apart from the fans, we have to think about another big logistical concern to hosting games on campus. Turning around a basketball arena is one thing. Finding out you’re going to host a national college football playoff game a week from now would be a huge project to undertake. Would schools handle tickets and parking? When a campus hosts an NCAA Tournament game, the arena is more or less taken over by the NCAA – forget your season ticket seat, your parking pass, the look of the court, and many of the comforts of home. Everything is done from a blank slate. Would a football playoff game work the same way? A lot of advance work would have to be done by athletic departments for games they might not even host.

How would teams be selected? By a committee, by the current ranking formula, or by a different formula?

I’d prefer a committee. I think the basketball tournament took a large step this year with a more transparent selection process. Though the process remains an obscure stew of criteria, they emerged with a top-to-bottom ranking and were forced to answer some pointed questions about their reasoning. It wasn’t necessarily mistake-free, but it’s still a more transparent process by a group that should follow the sport much more closely than your average pollster or coach.

When exactly would games be scheduled, considering finals, holidays and our desire to avoid mid-January games?

It seems trite to say “every other fall sport manages,” but…yeah. And what’s wrong with mid-January games? We’ve blown through the January 1st barrier like Chuck Yeager. If we’re playing in Mobile a week after New Year’s, I think we’re well past the point of having a sacred end of the season. But this seems like a question more suited for a 16/24/32-team playoff. Scheduling won’t be an issue with most of the +1/4/8-team proposals being kicked around.

On polls starting in October…

Watson seems to prefer that the polls decide the playoff participants with the demand that the relevant polls “start in October to give all teams a fair shake at those top spots.” We’ve explained before why preseason polls aren’t going anywhere. So long as there’s Phil Steele and a hundred other blogs and publications feeding a fan’s desire to talk about the next season as soon as the previous one ends, whether there’s an official poll before October is moot. The narrative will have already been set, there will already have been a pecking order and favorites established, and a poll that starts nominally in October can’t help but be influenced by all of the conversation that’s happened to that point.

Post What does the 1974 ACC Tournament have to do with a college football playoff?

Thursday March 29, 2012

In 1974, Maryland and N.C. State played an epic basketball game in the ACC Tournament final. State was ranked #1; Maryland was #5. The game lived up to its billing – the Wolfpack narrowly won 103-100 in overtime. It remains the standard for ACC hoops, and it’s tough to beat in a discussion of the greatest college basketball games.

Few games in any sport can be credited with causing a specific change that will affect the course of the sport. The 2009 NFC Championship Game led the NFL to reconsider its overtime format. Another ACC Championship game in 1982 is often pointed to as the impetus for a shot clock in the college game. That 1974 N.C. State – Maryland game is generally considered the final straw that brought about a decision that would change the nature of the NCAA Tournament and the college basketball postseason.

Prior to 1974, college basketball’s NCAA Tournament was an exclusive affair limited to only conference champions. It’s hard to think of the NCAA Tournament as anything but the monolithic end-all of college hoops, but it wasn’t always so. The NIT, today’s parting gift for bubble teams, was actually a viable competitor to the NCAA Tournament back in the day. You can see why: a tournament that only included conference champions excluded some pretty good teams. (If you look at this season’s Final Four, only two of the four won their conference tournaments.) As recently as 1974, teams that finished ranked among the top 10 were part of the NIT field.

Though other great teams (including #2 Southern Cal in 1971) had been excluded from the NCAA Tournament in the past, college hoops lived with this arrangement as a fact of life. The loss by Maryland was the tipping point that forced the guardians of the sport to question whether it was just that a top 5 team, far better than most conference champs, would be excluded from the national championship process because they lost in overtime to the #1 team. The NCAA Tournament was expanded to 32 teams in 1975, and the era of the at-large bid began.

College football is now working through some of the same questions college basketball faced nearly 40 years ago. As football begins to consider a fundamental change to its postseason, the areas of contention are familiar to anyone who has followed the BCS/playoff discussion. How many teams? On campus or neutral sites? Should participation require a conference championship?

Just because this is well-worn ground doesn’t mean that it’s not worth having these discussions again. Did basketball get it right when it reacted to the 1974 ACC Championship with a larger national bracket? It did start the NCAA Tournament down the path of becoming one of the nation’s most popular sporting events. Teams across the nation have something to play for towards the end of the year even if they’re not the cream of their conference. Allowing at-large teams gave greater meaning to the regular season rather than have a single weekend of conference tournaments determine the participants of the national tournament.

There are downsides to the direction college basketball has taken. Critics claim that the magnitude of the NCAA Tournament has distilled the season down to a few weeks.* We’ve just about neutered the major conference tournament. These tournaments made waves that would change the game in the ’70s and ’80s. Now coaches of national contenders wonder what the point of a conference tournament is. The decision to expand the tournament also opened the door to bracket creep. The size of the field has been increased eight times since 1975. There is support from some of the game’s more respected figures to go even further to 96 teams and beyond – teams much more interested in a participation trophy than a realistic shot at a national title.

Turning back to the issue of at-large teams in a football playoff (of any size), it seems like only a matter of time. If the BCS Championship is, in practice, a playoff of two, we’ve already answered the at-large question this past January. Whether Alabama’s loss to LSU in November has the same lasting impact on its sport that the 1974 ACC final had will be evident in the playoff format that eventually emerges. Regardless, it’s tough to find a playoff that hasn’t eventually faced and answered this question with a larger field and the inclusion of at-large teams. College football, with the Alabama-LSU example fresh in its collective consciousness, should go ahead and allow for at-large teams from the outset no matter the format.

* The point that the NCAA Tournament frenzy makes the first 3+ months of the hoops season meaningless less-interesting is repeated often enough that even playoff proponents don’t bother quibbling with it anymore. I wonder though how much it has to do with the general popularity of the sport and the sheer length of the regular season. The NBA regular season is a numbing 82-game trudge towards the playoffs. The NFL season is much more compelling on a week-to-week basis. Given a relatively scarce inventory of 11 or 12 regular season games in college football, each week still has weight.

Post Happy trails, Hines Ward

Friday March 23, 2012

One of Georgia’s favorite sons has played his last professional football game. I don’t have much to say about Hines Ward the professional. Sure, I watched the Super Bowls. But I’m not surprised at the pro he became. What he was in Pittsburgh he was at Georgia. He was a fan favorite in Athens and would have been wherever he played at the next level. Ward will always be associated with the Falcons’ decision to draft Jammi German, but I’m glad that Ward was able to play someplace where he could realize the individual and team accomplishments that he deserved but never got in college.

Hines Ward of course became one of the most celebrated and beloved Bulldogs by the time he finished his four years in Athens. There are many reasons for that status. Simple production was good enough for most; he was a great player and athlete. Versatility was another. We can point to memorable games in which he featured as a tailback, a quarterback, and certainly as a receiver. Put it all together with the trademark smile, and it was impossible to dislike him.

The death spiral of the 1995 season was tough on a lot of people, especially those on whom it took a physical toll, but it put Ward in one of the least enviable positions you could imagine. The season was in enough trouble with the injury to Robert Edwards. It got worse when Mike Bobo’s broken leg led to a loss at Ole Miss.

Ward had started 1995 at receiver due to the emergence of Robert Edwards. When Edwards was injured, Ward moved back to tailback. Bobo’s injury meant another position change. Georgia’s next opponent after Ole Miss was Alabama. The Tide had dropped a little from their 1992 national championship level, but they were still ranked and featured one of the best defensive lines in the nation. Ward was given less than a week to prepare for his first career start under center, and he never had a chance. He was pulled from the game, and a lot of us considered that experiment done and over with.

Georgia found a way to squeeze out ugly low-scoring wins against Clemson, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky, but Ward was once again put in a tough spot when championship game-bound Florida came to Athens. Though the Dawgs had no prayer against the Florida offense, Ward showed some signs of life with 226 yards passing and another 65 more on the ground while running for his life.

By the end of the 1995 season Ward led the Dawgs to a comeback win over Georgia Tech, and that was enough to get Georgia into the Peach Bowl. Most of us know what happened there.

In 1996, Ward was able to move on a more permanent basis to receiver. I wish there were video of the flip he did to secure the win over Texas Tech. By 1997 he was no longer an athlete in search of a position; he was a receiver known for this:

Typical of his versatility was the win over Florida in 1997 when Ward had seven receptions for 85 yards, ran five times for 21 yards, completed two passes for 27 yards and returned two kickoffs for 70 yards.

That didn’t even mention the block to spring Edwards. Robert Edwards’ touchdown to break open the 1997 Florida game was possible because Ward had sealed off the lane down the sideline. Ward’s blocking and love for contact is the stuff of hyperbole, but he brought the same approach and fearlessness running, throwing, and as a receiver.

Though he spent all that time running or throwing the ball over his first two seasons, he still left Georgia sixth in career receptions. There was no doubt that he was a receiver, and that’s where he would make his mark at the next level. He’ll be remembered here as one of Georgia’s greatest all-around offensive skill players, and I wish the staff could have done more to get him to 1,000 career passing yards. His professional success gives him the freedom to do anything he wishes with the rest of his life, but I hope he and the University find some way for him to have as much of a presence around the Georgia program as he wants.

Post Lady Dogs bounced from NCAA Tournament

Friday March 23, 2012

The season came to a crashing halt for the Lady Dogs on Sunday with a 76-70 loss to Marist in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Georgia entered the tournament as a 4-seed, its highest seed in five seasons. Marist, though a 13-seed, were tournament veterans and had won 20 of 21 games before facing Georgia. The Red Foxes weren’t intimidated by the setting or the opponent, and their confidence showed on the court.

It was an omen of a long day to come when Anne Marie Armstrong took a knee to the back during a scramble on the floor for a loose ball in the game’s opening minutes. Armstrong sucked it up and returned to action, but it was clear that she was limited and rattled. She finished with just six points, zero defensive rebounds, and a team-high five turnovers. Miller and Mitchell were able to pick up some of the scoring load, but Georgia’s inability to get much going inside hurt them, particularly down the stretch when Mitchell was unavailable.

The game story going around paints a picture of a no-win decision for Andy Landers: do you try to stop the Marist offense with an experienced senior struggling with foul trouble or do you go with a freshman who’s a less-effective defender? That was certainly the situation Georgia faced midway through the second half.

The problem is that the defense wasn’t all that hot *with* Meredith Mitchell in the game. What was happening is pretty simple: Marist spread the court well and encouraged Georgia’s aggressive man defense to extend. The spacing left lanes for those with the ball to drive to the basket or those without the ball to cut to the basket behind the extended defense. It was startling how often Marist was able to beat Georgia in these one-on-one situations off the dribble.

Georgia’s defense strategy wasn’t without merit. The Lady Dogs came up with 13 steals in large part by pressuring the ball, and it helped to fuel the second half comeback. But too often Georgia’s extended defense left a player on an island and without help as a Marist player went in for the easy basket. At times even Georgia center Jasmine Hassell was left isolated in on-ball defense 20+ feet away from the basket. She had no chance.

The decision to play a foul-laden Mitchell was a by-product of Georgia’s game plan. As Landers admitted, “Our defense wasn’t very good and they were very good with executing their drive options, which led to layups and fouls.” Even with foul trouble, Georgia didn’t adjust its defense. Often teams trying to protect a key player in foul trouble will switch to a zone defense. A zone might have also choked off the lanes Marist found to attack the basket. The downside of a zone is that Marist might have had more open looks around the perimeter, and they were shooting the ball well. We’ll never know: Georgia never tried anything else.

The loss ends a season that had shown moments of promise but ended with early exits in both the SEC and NCAA Tournaments. The improved fitness level of the team at the end of the year led to hope for a third-straight Sweet 16 appearance. It’s disappointing, but this isn’t the year to make dire proclamations about the state of the program. There’s nothing like a loss to bring out discussion about Andy Landers and his program, but despite the results in the postseason the program is on solid ground.

First, let’s cut through the nonsense. Georgia doesn’t have a legacy of underachieving in the NCAA Tournament. This is the first time Georgia has been truly upset in the tournament since the 2-seed Lady Dogs lost to 10-seed Missouri in Athens in 2001. It’s the first time they’ve even lost to a lower seed since the 2004 tournament in which 3-seed Georgia lost to 4-seed LSU in the Elite 8. Their final game of the tournament has been against a 1 or a 2 seed in seven of the last nine seasons. Georgia has been more likely to beat higher-seeded teams and did so in each of the past two seasons to reach the Sweet 16.

Georgia’s tournament performance relative to its seed has been fine, but it’s that initial seed that tells a more important story. Georgia’s #4 seed this year was its best since 2007, and its average seed over the last ten years has been between a 5 and a 6. That’s certainly not awful, and the Lady Dogs have managed to have enough consistency to make the tournament each year. Still, the further you get away from the top seeds the tougher it becomes to advance to the Elite Eight and beyond. You’re put in the position of having to beat a #1 or #2 to move past the Sweet 16, and Georgia has gone 0-6 in those games against top seeds since beating #2 Purdue in 2004. The only way to improve to your initial seed is to perform better during the regular season.

Can Georgia improve on its regular season in 2012-2013? Next season is shaping up to be a watershed moment for the program. The program will have lost only two key contributors over the past two seasons. Four starters will return, and all will be upperclassmen. Three other returning players will have significant experience. This seven-player core will be bolstered by a solid and deep signing class of at least five players. There’s significant turnover in the SEC: at least three programs will be looking for new coaches. Tennessee loses five seniors. Though there will be several programs in contention – there always are in the SEC – Georgia should have the experience, depth, and talent to be one of those teams fighting for a conference title that has eluded the program for over a decade. Expectations will and should be high.

Post Lady Dogs earn best NCAA seed in five years

Wednesday March 14, 2012

Georgia’s women’s basketball team earned a #4 seed in the 2012 NCAA Tournament. The seed is Georgia’s highest starting position since receiving a #3 seed in 2006 and 2007. With Georgia’s legacy and tradition, it’s not quite right to say that a #4 is evidence of a program on its way back, but it is recognition of one of Georgia’s strongest teams in several seasons.

Georgia will be aiming for its third consecutive Sweet 16 appearence. Despite earning a #5 and #6 seed over the past two seasons, Georgia has managed to pull some mild second-round upsets and advance. Now it’s Georgia turn to play the role of the favorite for the first time in five seasons. The Lady Dogs are coming off a disappointing quarterfinal exit in the SEC Tournament, but they’ve had two weeks to continue to get healthy and work on some persistent problems.

The Lady Dogs will begin the tournament in Tallahassee on Sunday at noon against Marist. Marist, a small school from my old stomping grounds in Poughkeepsie, NY, has been a mid-major success story in women’s hoops under coach Brian Giorgis. The Red Foxes have dominated the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC), and with seven consecutive league titles they’ve become a mainstay in the NCAA Tournament. They blew through the league again this year with a 17-1 conference record.

So while Marist will be a heavy underdog, they’ll be as comfortable and familiar with the pressures of the tournament as Georgia. The two programs met a couple of times during the middle of last decade – Georgia pulled away to win a close game on Marist’s court, and they had a little easier time when the teams met in the NCAA Tournament a season later.

Joining Marist and Georgia in Tallahassee are #12 seed Florida Gulf Coast and #5 seed St. Bonaventure. The winners of Sunday’s games will meet on Tuesday evening.

For ticket information, visit subregional host FSU’s website.