The spring retirement of Andy Landers shook the women’s basketball nation. One of the country’s winningest coaches and a member of the sport’s Hall of Fame stepped aside after 36 seasons. The announcement of assistant Joni Crenshaw (now Taylor) as Landers’ replacement came as a surprise – not because she was unqualified but because of her role in a Georgia program that had started to slide the wrong way.
Now as the head coach Taylor must draw from and build on the deep tradition of the program while giving it a fresh and energetic new image. She’ll have to rebuild the talent level of the program and convince elite recruits, especially from the state of Georgia, to come to Athens. With established and ascendant contenders plentiful in the SEC and the region, it will be a big challenge to build the kind of roster that would have Georgia back competing for SEC and national honors. She’ll be asked to do it while maintaining the academic and character standards that were a hallmark of the program she inherits.
Taylor is under immediate pressure to keep one long-standing program streak alive. Georgia hasn’t missed back-to-back NCAA Tournaments since 1980 and 1981, Landers’ first two seasons. That kind of streak shows what the expectations are here. Taylor, a member of the staff since 2011, understands those expectations and has embraced them. Her no-nonsense style has helped her establish authority with the returning team and assured that there won’t be any slacking off in accountability just because Landers has stepped aside.
Georgia lost two fan favorites to graduation. Forward Krista Donald and guard Erika Ford were important contributors during their four seasons, and the Lady Dogs will especially miss Donald’s toughness inside. Ford was a streaky shooter but became instant offense when she was on. That kind of production – the defense and rebounding of Donald and the scoring of Ford – is what you expect to lose from four-year veterans, but they leave vacant some significant roles.
Two other players no longer appear on the roster. Forward Nasheema Oliver missed most of the year with an injury and transferred to Georgia State during the offseason. Guard Jasmine Carter struggled with recurring symptoms after a couple of concussions, and I wouldn’t blame her if she hung up the sneakers.
Georgia welcomes three new faces to the team. Shanea Armbrister is a 6’2″ JUCO transfer wing who is expected to help the offense. She’s picked up international experience over the past two years representing the Bahamas and had over 15 PPG to lead her team to a gold medal at this summer’s Caribbean Basketball Confederation Championship. Unfortunately she’s battling knee issues and probably won’t be available until later in the season.
The lone frontcourt signee is 6’3″ Caliya Robinson from Marietta, a top-50 national recruit. Robinson can bang inside and rebound but also run the court and score with the jumpshot. Like Armbrister, Robinson has been limited by a past knee injury and might be limited early in the season. The Lady Dogs do have a bit of frontcourt depth, but they’d like to bring Robinson along this year as Hempe and Barbee prepare to graduate. Former coach Andy Landers called incoming guard Amber Skidgel a “pure shooter.” She’s a three-point specialist who will help Georgia’s perimeter game but must work to round out the rest of her game.
Four seniors highlight a deep returning cast. Point guard Marjorie Butler enters her second season running the point. Shooting guard Tiaria Griffin will be a key player on offense and must improve her consistency and ball-handling. Forwards Merritt Hempe and Shacobia Barbee were sidelined for significant stretches last season, and the team missed them. Hempe missed several weeks battling mono and returned for the postseason. Barbee was lost for a longer time with a broken leg, and the Lady Dogs went 2-9 down the stretch without her. Barbee had emerged as the team’s top scorer, rebounder, and defender, and that production was never quite replaced. Hempe likewise was making strides as a junior before her illness. She’s become a potent inside scoring threat but must avoid unnecessary fouls, especially away from the basket.
Georgia returns several experienced underclassmen as well. Mackenzie Engram had an immediate impact as a freshman and ended up starting seven games. Her versatility will be counted on again. Halle Washington is Georgia’s other interior option and made progress during Hempe’s absence. Like Hempe, foul trouble has proven to be Washington’s nemesis and will be the chief obstacle in the way of continued development. Haley Clark saw time as a freshman backing up Butler at the point and even earned a few starts. She was able to push the tempo a bit more than Butler, and tempo has been one of the points stressed by Coach Taylor during the preseason.
Strengths and weaknesses
The continuity of the four seniors is this team’s biggest strength. Taylor will have a built-in leadership group for her debut season. Barbee is a potential all-conference player, and Hempe or Griffin could carry the team on a given night. The team will be strongest up front with Barbee, Hempe, Engram, and Washington. If the posts can manage foul trouble, and especially if Caliya Robinson can contribute, Georgia could prove formidable inside.
One key question is at point guard. Butler can be steady but deliberate running the point. If Taylor wants to push the ball, Butler will have to work faster than the tempo with which she was most comfortable last year. Clark showed promise but still looked very much like a freshman. Her offseason development will determine Taylor’s options running the offense. Either way, offensive production from the point guard position must increase.
For several seasons the biggest challenge for the Lady Dogs has been scoring points. They’ve tried to compensate with defense, but eventually you must score. The shocking 26-point output against Auburn last season was the low point, but many of the same players will be tasked with turning it around. Barbee will likely be the focal point, but the team needs more balance from outside. The team has hovered around 28-30% from behind the arc for several seasons, and the three-point shot has been too big a part of the offense with a percentage like that. Skidgel will have her moments off the bench, but much of the backcourt production will have to come from Griffin and Butler with Barbee, Engram, and even Hempe occasionally stepping outside.
Ideally, the team would prefer to generate easier transition baskets through pressure defense. That was the formula that took Andy Landers to the Hall of Fame, but the team has gotten away from it. Fouls, depth, and simply ability led Landers to use more zone, and even the most active zone won’t produce the transition opportunities that a good press will. Taylor’s ability to get the team’s style of play turned back around will determine how different this season is from the past several. Whether she has the personnel to play her preferred style is a big uncertainty though.
Georgia will be tested immediately in the nonconference schedule. Within the first three games, the Lady Dogs will travel to #24 Michigan State and host rival Georgia Tech. There’s a Thanksgiving tournament in California and then an important early December home game against Seton Hall. The rest of the nonconference slate is manageable, and only a trip to Wright State will break up a long homestand that takes the team into conference play. Including SEC foes, Georgia will play a total of six teams ranked in the preseason AP poll.
The SEC rotation sets up so that Georgia will play South Carolina and Tennessee just once. Unfortunately each of those games is on the road, so Lady Dog fans won’t have an opportunity to see the top SEC contenders in Athens. The Lady Dogs will have home-and-home SEC games with Florida, LSU, and Missouri. The conference schedule is book-ended by some tough opponents: Texas A&M and Kentucky will be two of the first three SEC opponents. South Carolina and Tennessee appear at the tail end of the season.
The SEC Tournament will be in Jacksonville for the first time. South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas A&M, and Mississippi State were picked by the coaches to finish 1-4 in the SEC.
SEC media and coaches predicted a ninth-place finish for the Lady Dogs. That’s where they finished last season, and it implies an SEC record around or just below .500. That’s usually marginal for an NCAA Tournament bid and often on the wrong side of the bubble. This is as meaningless as any preseason poll, but it does serve to help set expectations: ESPN’s preseason bracket does not include Georgia. In that light, a return to the postseason would seem to exceed expectations. But in the context of Georgia’s tradition, it’s almost an imperative. Failure to reach the NCAA Tournament would put the program in a position it hasn’t known in over 30 years, but earning a bid and returning Georgia to the postseason would be an important feather in the cap for a coach who needs every advantage she can get to make an immediate impact on the recruiting trail.
As with last season, the in-conference performance will make or break the season. The nonconference slate, even with a couple of tougher opponents, lends itself to a good record entering SEC play. A .500 record or better in the league should get the Lady Dogs into the postseason. Things were headed in that direction last season before the injuries hit, and Georgia’s core should be good enough to get them there this year without another onslaught of setbacks.