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.