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Post Georgia hoops enters the post-Frazier world

Monday March 20, 2017

It was pretty cut-and-dried for the Georgia men’s basketball team: this was a squad expected to make the NCAA Tournament and finish among the top four in the SEC. With anticipation for a step forward building since the end of the 2016 season, Georgia instead took a small step back and left some big questions for the future of the program.

Nonconference losses to Clemson, Marquette, and Oakland put the team’s postseason goals in doubt even before conference play started. Those losses, and the lack of quality wins, meant that Georgia’s margin for error in the SEC was slim. They did themselves no favor with a 4-7 start in league play. The Bulldogs got back to around .500 in conference, but it became increasingly clear that Georgia would have to knock off a team like Kentucky to sway the selection committee. Georgia had three opportunities to take down the Wildcats and came achingly close in two of them, but the signature win Georgia needed against Kentucky – or any team – remained just out of reach.

It seems as if Georgia’s misfortune in close games became a theme after the loss at Texas A&M. They’d just had an overtime loss at Florida. They’d follow those games up with narrow defeats at Kentucky and South Carolina. It’s true that a couple of wins in those games – especially road wins at Kentucky or Florida – very likely would have changed the team’s postseason fate and made for a much brighter evaluation of the season. It was a close margin between disappointment and meeting expectations, but there were also specific and reoccurring issues that led to those losses. Free throws. Ball handling. Shot selection. The collapse at A&M involved all of those things, and the clock issue that decided the game was just one more thing on top of the last ten minutes of horror that saw a double-digit lead evaporate. Shell-shocked by the loss and still fixated on the ending, the season reached its low point in the subsequent game against Alabama in which the coach was ejected and the team was blown out in a winnable game.

When you’re as close to the tournament as Georgia has been over the past two seasons, you can point to any number of small things that made the difference. In 2015-2016, the injury to Juwan Parker cost the team not only Paker’s productivity but also forced Charles Mann to play a bit out of position. In 2016-2017, the story might well be the inability of a young backcourt to replace the production of Mann and Kenny Gaines. Gaines and Mann accounted for 13.2 and 10.9 PPG as seniors. The trio of Jordan Harris (4.7), Turtle Jackson (4.1), and Tyree Crump (3.5) didn’t even replace Gaines’s points, let alone Mann’s.

It’s true that Georgia got improved play elsewhere: Parker was solid and Edwards took a step forward. Ogbeide had his moments. Even Frazier bumped up his scoring. Frazier shouldering more of the load told the tale: only Frazier and Maten averaged in double figures, and the team struggled to find consistent scoring options when they were out of the game. When Maten went down, the answer was more Frazier. Frazier ended up with a wonderful career and arguably deserved a happier ending. His will to win reminded fans of Sundiata Gaines in 2008, and the joy he had playing for Georgia made him one of the most beloved players to take the court in Athens.

But even as Frazier held the team together down the stretch, his shooting struggled. The senior only had one game after Maten’s injury (Auburn) in which he hit more than one three-pointer, and he only hit a single outside shot (against Tennessee) in three postseason games. He did his damage by drawing fouls and converting free throws. That made the difference against lesser teams like Auburn and LSU, but the diminished perimeter offense led to the team losing three of its last four games.

So the questions entering the 2017-2018 season start from the backcourt. The team has a single guard, combo G Teshaun Hightower, committed in the current class. It’s going to fall to Harris, Jackson, and Crump to run the offense and produce much of the outside shooting. Jackson, a rising junior, especially must improve if he’s going to be the point guard. Wings Parker, Wilridge, and Diatta are also going to have to step up to replace some of Frazier’s perimeter scoring. The strength of the team, depending on Yante Maten’s NBA draft status, should be its frontcourt. Maten will be the anchor if he returns, but Ogbeide and Edwards are coming on. Georgia will also add forward Rayshaun Hammonds, a top 100 national prospect. Expect that frontcourt to face sagging zone defenses until Georgia demonstrates a consistent perimeter threat.

Georgia loses only Frazier and a handful of reserves, so a nice core returns, and expectations will be close to what they were for 2017. It might not even be enough to meet those expectations. When the program has to issue a statement about the coaching situation while the season is in progress, you know that there’s a lot riding on the upcoming season.

The biggest challenge for Georgia basketball remains the same as it ever was: recruiting. The speculation about Fox’s future can’t help recruiting, but it’s unavoidable. Fox will have to succeed under those conditions, and he’ll have to convince prospects that he will be successful enough to be around when they get to Athens. The early signing period will have come and gone before we play much of the 2018 season, but a lot of eyes from Athens to high school gyms will be on Georgia’s ability to get back to the tournament in 2018.

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