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Post Lady Dogs pass a low bar

Friday March 10, 2017

In our season preview of the Lady Dogs, it wasn’t hard to conclude that “it looks like a transitional year and one in which Georgia will be considered more of a spoiler than a contender.” Georgia lost five seniors and took the recruiting hit of a coaching change leaving a sparse roster. Preseason polls had the team 12th out of 14 SEC teams, and a finish in that range likely meant a losing record and a good chance that Georgia wouldn’t advance beyond the play-in games at the conference tournament.

Going by those expectations, the Lady Dogs overachieved in Joni Taylor’s second season as head coach. They finished eighth in the SEC, advanced to the SEC quarterfinals, won five games against teams invited to the NCAA Tournament, and – perhaps most significantly – preserved the program’s legacy of winning records with a 16-15 campaign. The team still missed out on the postseason for the second time in three years, but it’s fairly impressive that they were even in the bubble discussion up through the final week of the season.

Five things can account for much of Georgia’s relative success:

  1. Solid defense. Offense was never going to be the calling card of this team, and the defense was good enough to keep them competitive in most games. Georgia gave up a respectable 62.4 PPG, and they often had a chance to win if the score was in the 50s.
  2. Pachis Roberts’s development into a consistent scorer. We knew Roberts could score, but that ability became something the team could count on to carry it through some of the team’s bigger wins. She earned a second team All-SEC selection for her outstanding senior year.
  3. The team remained fairly healthy. Injuries had been a big story in each of the past two seasons, but few games were missed this year due to injury. The loss of a starter for the third straight year would have been devastating for a team that only went eight deep.
  4. Returning players stepped up. Georgia didn’t have a ton of experience returning, and Robinson lost her starting role during the team’s slump, but Robinson and Engram joined Roberts as the only players averaging at least ten points per game. Those three were considered the foundation of this year’s team, and they played like it.
  5. Role players emerged. Armbrister grew more confident in her shooting. Costa served as a capable reserve at both guard spots. The lone freshman, Stephanie Paul, eventually earned a starting job.

To say that a winning record and avoiding the play-in games were legitimate achievements for this team shows the state of the program and reminds us why a coaching change was unfortunately necessary two years ago. Those marginal accomplishments are fine if this is the low water mark, but expectations will start to build soon. If maintaining the winning record streak was a goal of the past season, next year’s initial goal is a step up from that: Georgia has never missed the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons. Taylor’s first squad preserved that distinction, but they’ll be right back under the gun next season. Going further, Georgia hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game or finished higher than sixth in the SEC since the Elite Eight run in 2013. Those are the standards that have been set for the program, and Taylor now begins the job of getting Georgia back to that level after surviving the difficult 2016-2017 season.

On paper next year’s team should be much better. The seniors – Roberts in particular – will be missed, but six players will be added to the roster, and several of them should be looked to for immediate impact. 6’5″ center Bianca Blanaru should at the very least give Georgia a true post presence and create more favorable matchups for forwards like Robinson. Louisville transfer Taja Cole is a former McDonald’s All-American, and I’d be surprised if she isn’t the starting point guard. Cole, though prevented from playing by the transfer rules, became one of the more vocal and enthusiastic teammates on the bench and might also step into a leadership role in the future. Those two impact transfers are in addition to a Top 10 recruiting class that stocks the backcourt with three guard prospects rated 4* or higher and a 4* 6’3″ post player. Each member of the class is ranked in the top 15 at their position nationally with three among the top 10 at their position. Georgia might look to add to this class during the spring signing period.

The infusion of talent allows for a much more versatile attack. Georgia’s 8-deep roster wasn’t just limited by talent. The thin bench meant that Georgia couldn’t customize its approach based on the weaknesses of the opponent. Inevitable foul problems further dictated which five were on the court, and a zone was often required even when it wasn’t the optimal defense. Taylor’s first challenge will be building a team out of players who, for the most part, have never played together. Cole and Blanaru at least practiced this year, but Taylor will have to find out the best combinations of those two, the returning players, and the four impact freshmen.

The SEC isn’t getting any easier. We’ve seen ascendant programs at South Carolina and Mississippi State crowd out perennial powers like Georgia and LSU. Kentucky and A&M aren’t going away, and Missouri broke through this year. Tennessee has been down, but they welcome the nation’s top recruiting class. SEC cash has allowed high-profile hires at Vanderbilt and Arkansas. Even Alabama, often found near the bottom of the standings, knocked off Tennessee twice and returns their entire roster. The deeper and more talented roster will allow Georgia to remain competitive, but it’s going to be a long road back to challenge for a top four finish, much less a conference title. If Taylor can continue to recruit well and produce incremental improvements each year, she’ll have Georgia back in the discussion.

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