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Post Andy Landers steps down after 36 seasons

Thursday March 19, 2015

I might as well start here: I wouldn’t have met my wife had Andy Landers not given her a graduate assistantship. My reaction to his unexpected retirement on Monday isn’t going to be very impartial. So it’s been with much of the reaction I’ve seen this week – everyone has a story, a connection, or a personal memory.

As we reflect on Landers’ career, the relationships rise to the top. He has such a magnetic and ebullient personality that it’s impossible to start with anything other than the relationships. When you’re reading things like this from the media that covered the team, let alone the players he coached, you begin to get a sense of the presence that Landers developed in his 36 years in Athens.

For me, though, the relationships came later. The Red & Black writes that “Andy Landers will be remembered by his legacy as a leader and a man, not as just a coach. That’s true, and it’s the kind of sentiment you naturally turn to in these eulogistic pieces, but the “just a coach” part was what got me to follow the program.

He could coach. That seems silly to write about a guy pushing 900 wins, but it’s easy to get caught up in the caricature of Landers as the folksy cow farmer with the scowl on the court and the wry sense of humor off the court. He built his empire of over 850 wins, 20 Sweet Sixteens, 11 Elite Eights, five Final Fours, and two national title games by developing, teaching, and demanding that his teams play an uncomprimising style of basketball. His well-known tirades weren’t random outbursts; they were the consequences of falling short of the expectations of Georgia basketball. Landers knew when his players were capable of more, and almost always they were.

Basketball is what drew me to follow the team, and an appreciation of the game played and coached at a high level earned my respect long before I met the coach. I was hooked during the SEC Tournament run in 1993 when longshot Georgia knocked off highly-ranked Tennessee and Alabama on consecutive days to reach the finals. I was fortunate to be there during the march to the Final Four in 1995. I’ve seen the heartbreak in 2004 and 2013 when teams worthy of the Final Four came up just a possession short. Before you even get to know about the man on the sideline, this was a fun brand of basketball to watch and be around. For a basketball fan at Georgia looking for a taste of success, the men’s program was a perpetual tease. Landers delivered.

Two things stand out to me about Landers’ teams at their best: guard play and relentless pressure defense. I don’t mean to short the great forwards and posts to come through the program: Harris and McClain of course, Henderson, Thomas, Robinson, Humphrey, and others I could spend the rest of this post listing. But special guards became the hallmark of the program. It starts with Edwards. Roundtree and Holland were outstanding in the mid-90s. They were followed by the amazing backcourt of Nolan and the Miller twins. Sherill Baker was one of the best defenders you’ll ever see. Even towards the end, Houts and James developed into the backbones of their teams.

These guards and athletic forwards were essential not only for their scoring and floor leadership but also for executing Georgia’s press defense. The press went hand-in-hand with a tight man-to-man approach. Georgia’s bread-and-butter press was the 2-2-1 described here. As Landers noted, the press was an effective counter that made Georgia a difficult opponent. “Because most teams do not press, we do. By pressing, we upset offensive tempo, create excellent scoring opportunities, and win on off-nights.”

That formula worked for most of Landers’ career. With his best teams it was devastating, and his other teams could gain an advantage that helped them “win on off-nights” and pull some memorable upsets. So what’s changed? First, Landers’ observation that “most teams do not press” isn’t the case anymore. Enough teams run variants of press defenses either in their halfcourt defense or as a full-court press that it’s not an exotic experience to see pressure. Presses can be and are still effective even when you prepare for them, but it’s something teams face more often than not now in games and in their own practices.

The second change has to do with the roster. For several years Georgia has lacked the depth and the talent to run their preferred press, often falling back into a 2-3 zone in the halfcourt. Landers’ attention to defensive fundamentals has made Georgia a capable defensive team even in the leanest years. The difference has been the team’s ability to “create excellent scoring opportunities” as Landers described in his rationale for running the press. A team playing even an active 2-3 zone isn’t going to create the same turnovers and transition chances that you’ll get from full-court pressure. When your team thrives on those transition points, and especially when you struggle to generate points from your own halfcourt offense, getting away from the press is going to affect wins and losses.

We dug into the talent issue back in 2009, and many of the same points still apply. Georgia isn’t recruiting at the level it once did, and that’s limited what Landers has been able to do using the strategies that led to so much success. When he said that the past few seasons have been about “trying to figure out what we had to do to win a four-seed in the SEC,” it’s a by-product of recruiting. Elite talent has gradually given way to above-average talent that’s been good enough to make the NCAA Tournament and compete for a top-four SEC finish. It hasn’t been good enough to compete for titles at the national or even conference level, and that was the vision Landers had for the program. “We weren’t doing what we built this thing to do, and that responsibility is mine,” he admitted. I give him tremendous credit for that admission. Many people with the accomplishments and accolades that he’s earned have enough of an ego and enough sycophants around them that the situation can be rationalized. As Landers put it, he tried to spin the situation as human nature leads us to do, but it wouldn’t spin.

Though the ultimate responsibility does lie with Landers, it’s worth peeling back a few layers. We’ve used the 2003 departure of assistant and recruiting coordinator Michael Shafer as a dividing line. Georgia hasn’t appeared in a Final Four or won an SEC title since. That has less to do with Shafer than it does with the management of the program. Georgia has had difficulty finding and then retaining assistants who can perform at the level you’d expect of a national contender. It’s affected both recruiting and player development. Georgia’s current staff has been together about three years now, and that’s long enough to just start gaining traction after so much ground had been lost.

(A related thought: When you look at successful programs, a great head coach is often supported by at least one long-term assistant who’s as highly regarded among assistants as the head coach is among his or her peers. Every staff has turnover, but how many top programs have that one key experienced associate coach? Chris Dailey at UConn. Holly Warlick at Tennessee under Summitt. Nikki McCray-Penson at South Carolina. Amy Tucker at Stanford. Vic Schaefer at Texas A&M during their national title run. Carol Owens at Notre Dame. Bob Starkey at LSU. Georgia simply hasn’t had anyone in that league. As Georgia’s assistants have struggled with inexperience and a lack of continuity, Landers had to be much more hands on, and even the best coach can’t do it without a strong staff.)

To use Landers’ phrase, it shows how “spoiled” we’ve become to dissect a perennial NCAA Tournament program like this. But it was his vision and legacy that the program would have higher standards, and no one recognized the state of the program better than the man who built it. He didn’t need the athletic director or any of us to tell him that things had slipped from the expectations he had set. He just reached a point where he didn’t see a way back under his leadership.

It’s going to be tough going for Landers’ successor. There’s the whole following a legend thing, but there are more concrete concerns first. While the program won’t be starting from rock-bottom, any new coach will have to deal with the inertia of a very established culture. He or she won’t have to start from scratch teaching the expectations of winning or hard work, but there are bound to be conflicts against the inertia of a 30+ year way of doing things. Georgia has a capable group of rising seniors, and getting buy-in from that leadership from the start will go a long way for the sake of continuity.

Recruiting will be what makes or breaks the new coach, and he or she can have immediate success by improving Georgia’s in-state recruiting. The number of top prospects leaving the state is too long to list, and with powerful programs nearby at Tennessee and South Carolina, it will be a big but necessary job making Athens a destination for Georgia’s best. For the right coach, the Georgia position has much to offer: a talent-rich home state, a high-profile and competitive conference, an established and supportive fan base, outstanding facilities and resources, and the deep pockets of a successful SEC program. The tools are in place for a capable coach to attract (or keep home) the kind of talent it will take to reestablish Georgia as an SEC contender.

Those deep pockets will be put to as much of a test with this hire as they were during the football offseason. This isn’t the athletic department of 1994 when it took the threat of a lawsuit to properly pay its women’s coaches, but Landers still wasn’t on the cutting edge of compensation. Attracting a quality head coach and assembling the type of staff we described above will likely cost more than it did to retain the outgoing Hall of Fame coach. The wallet opened up for the football program after the 2014 season, and it will be interesting to see how aggressive the offer is to find Landers’ successor. South Carolina famously caused a stir when they offered Dawn Staley $650,000 in 2008, but that risk has paid off with a top 5 program.

I have no idea in which direction Georgia will or should go. There’s the sentimental instinct to look for someone with ties to Landers. Do you look outside the program for a fresh approach? Do you look for another young coach out of relative obscurity with the possibility of another decades-long run, or do you look for the security of an established veteran? When Andy Landers has been the only coach the program has known, there just isn’t a precedent to follow.

It’s been a sad few days reflecting on this inevitable transition. With any change though there’s the excitement and optimism that a new direction is the answer. Lady Dogs fans can look to the legacy of Andy Landers to know what’s possible at Georgia, but that same legacy will set some high expectations for the next coach. With a solid returning roster, some key pieces working back from injury, and some talented incoming freshmen, the opportunity is there for an immediate impact.

Post Visualizing the indoor practice facility

Tuesday March 10, 2015

We learned last month that the athletic department is going forward with an indoor practice facility (IPF).

Greg McGarity put out some information on Monday that talked a bit about the process (and why news to this point has been short on specifics.) More interesting is a series of renderings showing how an IPF might look in various locations around the current practice fields.

One thing to note is that the IPF won’t look exactly like the building you see, so don’t get hung up on the design. They’re using a generic facility to show how a building of similar size will sit in these locations. “Please understand the focus on these renderings centers only on the MASS of the facility in specific areas,” McGarity explained. “Architectural design will be developed as the process continues.”

The renderings make clear the tradeoffs in picking the location. It’s tight quarters. Some combination of existing buildings, existing practice fields, campus streets, and parking will be affected. While the perspective of the renderings make it tough to pinpoint the exact locations, we see several distinct locations under consideration.

  • Some of the renderings lie in part of what we’ll call the “Hoke Smith Block” bordered by Lumpkin St., Carlton St., Sanford Dr., and Smith St. We’re shown versions that are aligned east-west as well as north-south. The north-south orientation cuts off Smith St. and replaces the smaller turf practice field below the track. The east-west version brings the facility closer to Stegeman Coliseum.
  • Other configurations show the facility on the footprint of either a full-length turf or grass practice field. McGarity has insisted for several years that “we don’t want to disturb that environment” of “the first-class practice facility we have here with two grass fields and two turf fields.”
  • At the same time, we’ve come a long way in a year. In December 2013, McGarity seemed resigned to the idea that “it’s gotta probably be out on South Milledge.” We know now that the focus is now much closer to the existing complex. Has McGarity’s stance on sacrificing a practice field changed as well? After all, is an outdoor turf field much different than an indoor one?
  • Another possibility shows the facility placed in the area surrounded by Foley Field’s left field wall, the tennis complex, the Carlton St. parking deck, and the Rankin Smith Center.

Since we’re still in the proposal phase, it’s not worth spending time on the pros and cons of each location or guessing which is most likely. Each location shown will have some impact either on current football facilities or on campus infrastructure (or both).

Post 9th Annual SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament Preview

Wednesday March 4, 2015

The SEC women break the Nashville/Duluth cycle this year and head west to Arkansas this week for their 2015 tournament. North Little Rock has hosted the tournament three times already, most recently in 2009. While there is a clear favorite this season, the battle to make it to Saturday and beyond is a toss-up.

At the top of the standings, it’s been pretty much as expected. South Carolina and Tennessee finished with a single conference loss each, and no one would be surprised to see them square off for the championship. There have been some interesting developments in the next tier of teams. Mississippi State has been a great story. LSU could be considered a bit of a surprise as well after disappointing nonconference results. Texas A&M and Kentucky are used to finishing a little higher than they did, and each has been vulnerable. With so much SEC Tournament experience between those two teams, you almost expect one of them to make a little noise from the 5 and 6 seeds.

The bottom of the field has also seen some shifting. A slew of midseason injuries left Georgia, once comfortably among the top third of the league, fighting just to avoid the ignominy of playing on Wednesday. Missouri put together a run and a couple of upsets at the end of the season to merit the 7 seed. Vanderbilt has had a season below their standards while Ole Miss took a nice step forward. Alabama and Auburn rose to the middle of the pack last season but have returned to the bottom.

Georgia’s Path Through the Tournament:

Wednesday: Bye
Thursday / Second Round: #10 Georgia vs. #7 Missouri: 7 pm ET. SEC Network
Friday / Quarterfinals: vs. #2 Tennessee: 7 pm ET. SEC Network
Saturday / Semifinals: 7:30 pm ET. ESPNU
Sunday / Finals: 3:30 p.m. ET. ESPN
Complete Bracket Here

The Field

1) South Carolina (15-1): If last season’s SEC regular season championship announced the arrival of Dawn Staley’s program, this year’s campaign showed the conference that the Gamecocks liked it at the top. The next step for Staley? An SEC Tournament title. Despite the regular season crown in 2014, South Carolina fell in the semifinals and didn’t play for the tournament title. They’ve been the league’s most dominant team all season, though recent challenges from Tennessee and Kentucky shows that the champs have plenty of work to do before they’re crowned in Little Rock. They won’t have to face either of those teams until the championship game on Sunday.

As with any champion, the Gamecocks are talented, well-coached, and confident. There’s a slew of experienced players returning starting with All-American guard Tiffany Mitchell. Senior forward Aleighsa Welch is the team’s leader and sets the tone with an incredible work rate around the basket. A stellar freshman class including forward A’ja Wilson and lightning-quick point guard Bianca Cuevas has elevated the team to contend for the national title.

2) Tennessee (15-1, 23-4): While South Carolina deservedly enters the tournament as the favorite, how can you overlook the team that’s won four of the last five tournaments? Tennessee has dropped three games outside of the league to very good opponents, but they’ve only fallen once in conference play: a very competitive loss at South Carolina that went down to the final possession. Tennessee still thrives on relentless defense and aggressive rebounding, and that will do against most teams.

The Lady Vols took a big hit recently when center Isabelle Harrison was lost for the season, but the team showed at South Carolina that they can still be dangerous without her. There’s still a tremendous amount of talent, and forwards Cierra Burdick and Bashaara Graves can step up in place of Harrison. Ariel Massengale and Andraya Carter lead a veteran backcourt. Tennessee doesn’t go that deep, so they’ll need big production across the starting five to repeat as tournament champions.

3) Mississippi St (11-5, 26-5): No team has made a bigger jump this season. MSU has improved from 13th a year ago to third under third-year coach Vic Schaefer. They raced out to an 18-0 start against a typically weak schedule, but they’ve held it together in conference play. Their 11 SEC wins and 26 overall wins are both program records. If a loss at Vanderbilt can ever be considered a bad loss, that’s their only blemish. MSU has knocked off three teams ranked at the time – Georgia, West Virginia, and Texas A&M. They’ve yet to claim a top 10 scalp, though they went to two overtimes against Kentucky. With the Wildcats their likely Friday opponent, that rematch could be one of the more entertaining quarterfinal games.

The Bulldogs can shoot, hitting more three-pointers than anyone but Missouri. But they succeed by doing the little things well: they’re near the top of the league in rebounding, free throw percentage, and blocks. Martha Alwal remains one of the league’s most well-rounded post players, but she’s had some help this year from freshman wing Victoria Vivians. There’s a deep and experienced pool of guards that make it difficult to key on the posts or on any one shooter.

4) LSU (10-6, 16-12): Heading into conference play, the Tigers were a flat 6-6 with some head-scratching losses. An early-season suspension for leading scorer Danielle Ballard turned LSU into a very ordinary team. Ballard returned soon after the SEC schedule started, and the Tigers have rebounded to become a contender for an NCAA bid despite their overall record. They have impressive wins against Kentucky and Mississippi State, but some inconsistency down the stretch is troubling. They beat a short-handed Texas A&M team to close the season, but that win snapped a streak of three losses in four games including an ugly loss at Arkansas. The Tigers are guard-focused with Ballard and Raigyne Moncrief carrying most of the load. If they can get addtional outside production from DaShawn Harden or any inside production, it’s a bonus. The win against A&M earned them the double-bye, and they’ll likely have to face the Aggies again to make the semifinals.

5) Texas A&M (10-6, 22-8): It’s a familiar place for A&M: they’re not at the top of the standings, but they’re comfortably among the next group. The Aggies weren’t competitive with Tennessee or South Carolina but have an additional three losses by a combined 6 points. They lost point guard Jordan Jones for the season last week against Missouri, and they’ve dropped two straight games without her. A&M is the anti-Missouri, attempting few outside shots, and they depend on that point guard position for penetration and passing inside the arc. Jones is also one of the league’s top defenders. The absence of Jones likely won’t cost them in their first game, but Friday’s game would be a rematch against LSU – a team that just beat the Aggies by 17 on Sunday.

6) Kentucky (10-6, 21-8): The Cats have been highly-ranked all season, but they’ve found it tough to stay near the top of the SEC. They missed a chance to upset Tennessee in Lexington, and there’s no shame in any of their losses. They also have an impressive set of wins over ranked teams, and they captured the biggest win of the season with a Senior Day upset of South Carolina. Their frenetic defense and pace is enough to give them a chance against any opponent. They took a graduation hit in the frontcourt, but a strong senior class led by guard Jennifer O’Neill has plenty of postseason experience. Kentucky was able to knock off top-seeded South Carolina in the tournament last season, and Sunday’s upset of the Gamecocks was a reminder that even the 6-seed could make a deep run in this tournament.

7) Missouri (7-9, 17-12): Three! No SEC team is more dependent on the three-pointer. They don’t shoot the league’s best percentage, but no other team attempts or makes more than the Tigers. When they’re falling, they’re able to beat Texas A&M in College Station. They’ve had some success against the bottom of the conference (not to mention the upset of A&M), but the more talented teams of the league have been able to match up against their guards. Mizzou has been hot down the stretch, winning five of their last six games, so an appearance in the quarterfinals isn’t out of the question.

8) Ole Miss (7-9, 17-12): Their in-state rivals might be the SEC’s most improved team, but the Rebels aren’t far behind. In three seasons, Ole Miss has gone from the disgrace of postseason ineligibility to a last-place finish a year ago to a very respectable middle-of-the-pack result in 2015. It hasn’t been smooth sailing: they started SEC play 4-1 but lost seven straight before righting the ship. They’ve knocked off Georgia, Arkansas, LSU, and Kentucky in Oxford but haven’t done much of note away from home – always a concern for the postseason. Forward Tia Faleru is the league’s best rebounder.

9) Arkansas (6-10, 16-12): When you’re (re)building a program, you want to see a team that’s improved over the course of the season. That’s what you’ve got with Arkansas. The Hogs started out 1-6 in the SEC under first-year coach Jimmy Dykes, but they won five of seven games to get back into the discussion for an NCAA bid. A rout of red-hot LSU shows that this is a team to avoid in your bracket.

10) Georgia (6-10, 18-11): On January 22nd, the Lady Dogs pulled off a mild upset of #10 Texas A&M. It was a low-scoring, defensive battle – the formula that had worked to propel them to a 5-2 SEC record, 17-3 overall. Georgia then dropped a competitive game at Tennessee, but it was the loss of the team’s best scorer and defender, Shacobia Barbee, that changed the season. The tight games that had gone Georgia’s way became close losses, and a litany of injuries piled up as Georgia dropped eight straight and went winless in February. Georgia’s young players have made progress since the injuries afforded more playing time, and they were able to break the losing streak in the season finale at Florida. Georgia’s 20-year NCAA Tournament streak seems to be over, and they’ll have to make do in a spoiler role here.

Georgia’s been led by the backcourt in the past few seasons, but that’s changed a little this year especially without Barbee in the lineup. Merritt Hempe has continued to improve at center, and her return will help the team. Senior forward Krista Donald continues to be a warrior, and All-SEC freshman Mackenzie Engram has been a nice addition. Halle Washington has stepped up in Hempe’s absence.

Guards have struggled with consistency, and it starts with the point guard spot. Freshman Haley Clark has earned more and more playing time and a couple of starts down the stretch, but it’s been tough when so much of the offense runs through the point. Tiaria Griffin, Erika Ford, and transfer Pachis Roberts are all capable of big nights but are just as likely to be ice-cold. Fortunately their defense has been more consistent, but that defense has had little margin for error as the team has struggled to score.

11) Vanderbilt (5-11, 14-15): It’s the dreaded rebuilding year for Vandy. They’ve retooled with a taller but very inexperienced lineup that’s taking its lumps. That doesn’t mean they’re toothless: Vandy has knocked off Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Arkansas and could be a dangerous first or second round opponent. But as an inexperienced team, they’re just as likely to bow out on the first night.

12) Florida (5-11, 13-16): A year after squeaking into the NCAA Tournament, Florida has taken a step back. Florida was unspectacular in nonconference play, and their best conference win was a comeback in Athens during the Georgia collapse. The Gators feature their guards, but consistency, depth, and frontcourt production have been problems.

13) Auburn (3-13, 12-17): A dismal season got even worse after a midseason brawl with rival Alabama. The fallout from the brawl led to the dismissal of leading scorer Hasina Muhammad, and the Tigers seemed headed to a winless SEC season. They turned some heads with a comeback and near-upset against Ole Miss, and they finally broke through into the win column with a win at Georgia and closed the regular season with three straight wins. Guard Brandy Montgomery has stepped up, and the team’s pressure defense can be maddening. They’re not a sure one-and-done team at this tournament.

14) Alabama (2-14, 13-18): The Tide have lost quite a bit of ground from their surprising 7-9 campaign a year ago. Narrow wins over Auburn and Missouri are all that separate Alabama from a winless season, and the upsets that got them to seven wins in 2014 didn’t happen this year.