The 2015-2016 Lady Dogs season ended with a first-round NCAA Tournament exit after a 21-10 season and a 6th-place finish in the competitive SEC.
First-year coach Joni Taylor took over the program under favorable conditions. The Georgia program was slumping, but it was by no means starting from scratch. Taylor inherited a veteran-heavy team that included four returning senior starters. She was able to guide the team to a strong start and held on as two starters were lost for the year to injuries. Georgia returned to the NCAA Tournament and avoided the ignominy of becoming part of the first Georgia teams to miss consecutive postseasons in over 30 years.
With those four seniors, Taylor was essentially presiding over the end of the Andy Landers era. She made some adjustments and left no question that it was her team and program now, but there was also a strong core that had bonded for three seasons under Landers (with Taylor doing her part as an assistant.) That core is gone now, and there are only a couple of players remaining on the roster for whom Landers was the head coach longer than Taylor has been.
2016 will mark new beginnings for Taylor in several areas. On the court, it will be the first team that largely bears her imprint. She paid her dues as a rookie coach and can begin to take the program in the direction of her vision. On a personal level, Taylor and her husband welcomed their first child just eight days before the start of the season. As she spent last season learning the ropes of being a head coach, she’ll now be a rookie mom and will follow the lead of many professionals who must learn parenthood on the fly while finding the work/family balance that suits them. There is no set return date, and Taylor will likely ease back into the role. Associate Head Coach Karen Lange will be the acting head coach, and a plan for handling Taylor’s absence and gradual return to the program has been worked on for months.
In addition to the four graduated seniors (Barbee, Griffin, Hempe, and Butler), two other players are no longer with the team. Three-point specialist Amber Skidgel is now at North Georgia. Walk-on guard Hannahkohl Almire has also moved on.
The roster features 12 players, and that’s already under the NCAA limit of 15 scholarship players. Freshman post Kortney Eisenman will never play for the team after a medical disqualification. Eisenman was a national top 20 post player and was slotted to be a likely replacement for Merritt Hempe. Two other players, 6’5″ center Bianca Blanaru and guard Taja Cole, will sit out this season as a condition of their transfers.
So that leaves Taylor with eight scholarship players and a walk-on available for 2016-2017, and only six of those are returning players.
There are three seniors on this year’s squad. But unlike last year’s team whose seniors were all multi-year starters, this senior group features a number of role players who will be asked to step into a much larger leadership role. Center Halle Washington became an occasional starter last season after Engram and Barbee were lost to injury. She’s an athletic and capable post player who has improved each season, but foul discipline has been a persistent issue. With Eisenman unavailable, Georgia needs every minute they can get out of Washington. Pachis Roberts is in her third season as a wing after transferring from Syracuse. She has the ability to play on the perimeter but also pulled down over four rebounds per game. Shanea Armbrister was a JUCO transfer who saw limited time in relief of Georgia’s starting guards. Armbrister was brought in as a perimeter threat and will be looked to for offense this year.
Georgia’s underclassmen might be more familiar to fans. Junior forward Mackenzie Engram had an impressive freshman campaign, but her sophomore season was cut short by an upper respiratory illness. Haley Clark spent the past two seasons learning the point guard position behind Marjorie Butler, and now it’s her turn to run the Georgia offense. Georgia’s lone sophomore emerged as one of the brightest new starts in the SEC last season. Forward Caliya Robinson was a SEC All-Freshman Team selection who averaged nearly 15 points per game over Georgia’s last four games. Robinson averaged 8.0 points and was the team’s third-leading rebounder despite only starting one game as a freshman. Look for her to be a focal point of Georgia’s post offense and a tough interior defender on the other end.
Georgia signed two newcomers in addition to Eisenman. Stephanie Paul was the #32-ranked prospect in the country according to Prospects Nation and should earn immediate playing time behind Georgia’s frontcourt starters. Simone Costa is a junior college transfer guard with good 5’10” size who will be asked to back up Armbrister and Clark. The team recently added a walk-on guard, Ari Henderson.
The strengths and weaknesses are fairly apparent. Washington, Engram, and Robinson form a fairly good starting frontcourt, and Georgia’s offense should look to go inside-out. The backcourt is a concern. Georgia’s 173 three-pointers were 6th-best in the SEC last season, but players no longer with the team accounted for 127 of those. Armbrister (2.2 PPG) and Clark (1.4 PPG) haven’t been big scorers. It’s possible that Roberts (7 PPG) could start as the 2-guard. As a wing she’s capable from outside and can cause mismatches for smaller guards, but she’ll also be asked to defend quicker guards on the other end. Georgia can move Roberts to small forward if substitution patterns require, and Paul will be also be part of the frontcourt rotation. Costa will be an option at either guard spot. If Armbrister doesn’t start, she’ll be quick to come in off the bench especially if Roberts has to rotate inside.
The team also looks to be stronger inside on defense. Washington and Robinson can block shots, though Washington must avoid fouls. Robinson is also a solid rebounder, but Georgia will sorely miss Barbee’s work on the glass. There’s not a ton of size available especially if Washington is on the bench. Paul should bring a good shot of toughness to the frontcourt. We just haven’t seen enough of the guards to know if they can play consistent defense for the kinds of minutes they’ll see.
Visits from BYU and Virginia highlight the home nonconference schedule, and they’ll travel to face Cincinnati, Georgia Tech, and Oklahoma State. There’s a Thanksgiving tournament in the Bahama where the Lady Dogs will play Minnesota and either South Florida or North Carolina. None of Georgia’s nonconference opponents is currently ranked though several received votes.
The SEC slate is another story. Five of Georgia’s first seven SEC opponents earned a preseason ranking, and the Lady Dogs will face national title contender South Carolina twice during that stretch. The rotating SEC schedule means that Georgia will face South Carolina, Kentucky, and Florida twice. Home fans will get to see several quality teams: Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Florida, Alabama, and LSU all visit Athens.
Given the departures, Georgia either needed a loaded group of returning players or a stellar recruiting class to not miss a beat. They don’t have either. There is some talent on the roster and a couple of promising newcomers, but the depth of a well-rounded roster isn’t there. The SEC coaches pick Georgia to finish 12th out of 14 teams, and the Lady Dogs don’t place anyone on the preseason All-SEC teams. Georgia must finish at least 10th to avoid playing in the Wednesday play-in games at the SEC Tournament, and a finish in the bottom half of the league would likely mean that Georgia misses the postseason for the second time in three years.
The future is bright: Blanaru and Cole will make instant contributions after sitting out. Georgia also has four top-100 prospects already committed to a 2017 class that’s currently rated #5 in the nation. Taylor knows that the talent level has to be raised, and we’re seeing indications that Georgia won’t be down for long. In the meantime, though, it looks like a transitional year and one in which Georgia will be considered more of a spoiler than a contender.