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Post 2017-2018 Georgia Lady Dogs Preview

Thursday November 16, 2017

There’s no question about it – Joni Taylor’s Lady Dogs overachieved last season. They were picked to finish 12th in the league, but as we noted in our season wrapup, “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.”

So, yes, relative to expectations it was a successful season. But relative to the standards of the Georgia Lady Dogs program, there’s a long way to go before you can consider the program back. They remain far from the conference’s top four teams, they’ve missed the NCAA Tournament in two of the past three seasons, and they haven’t won an NCAA Tournament game or finished ranked since the Elite Eight run in 2013.

The program seems to have rounded a corner in terms of recruiting. Taylor notched a top 10 class and began to fill out a roster that’s been lopsided with either guards or forwards for several seasons.


Georgia bid farewell to three seniors: forward Halle Washington and guards Pachis Roberts and Shanea Armbrister. Roberts stepped up as you hope a senior would and led the team in scoring with 14.5 PPG on the way to second team All-SEC honors.

The Roster

Even with only three departing contributors, Georgia’s roster should see a fair amount of turnover in both the starting lineup and in playing time. The frontcourt is familiar: all-conference candidate Caliya Robinson will be a focus of both Georgia’s gameplan and opposing defenses. Senior Mackenzie Engram is fully back after a medical condition cut short her sophomore season and has the versatility to work inside or play around the perimeter. Stephanie Paul had an impressive freshman season and eventually became a starter.

The Lady Bulldogs return a pair of senior guards. Haley Clark and Simone Costa are backcourt veterans who could hold down starting roles early on but will be pushed by newcomers. Ari Henderson returns as the team’s lone walk-on.

The story of the season though is the influx of new talent. Georgia had two transfers sit out last season. 6’5″ Bianca Blanaru is a true post option to help replace Washington. Taja Cole, a former McDonald’s All-American, played as a true freshman at Louisville. Before she played a game for Georgia, Cole began taking on a leadership role. She was one of the most active and supportive team members on the bench last season as she sat out, and she was named to the SEC Basketball Leadership Council. Cole will likely step into the point guard role and lead the team on the court now.

Georgia also signed a top 10 class of four freshmen. Malury Bates, a national top 10 post prospect, was the lone frontcourt signee. She’s sidelined for now with a foot injury but will hopefully contribute this season. Guards Gabby Connally, Maya Caldwell, and Que Morrison were all national top 100 prospects who should really improve Georgia’s scoring and athleticism. Morrison might be the most game-ready at this point, but all three guards should work into the rotation with Clark and Costa providing valuable roles, especially on defense.

The team received an important transfer during the offseason. Center Jenna Staiti signed with Maryland out of Forsyth County. She was the Gatorade State Player of the year for Georgia in 2016 and a national top 20 prospect. She’ll sit out this season but will improve the team right away with her presence in practices.


For the first time in a couple of years, depth should be a relative strength. There are 11 scholarship players available with the transfer Stati providing good practice competition. That’s a step up from eight scholarship players a year ago. Even better, all 11 bring something to the table. The rotation will probably tighten down to 8 or 9 as we get into conference play, but the difference is that Taylor won’t be limited by which 8 she can play. Playing time and lineups can be adjusted based on matchups and situations. Of course mainstays like Robinson and Engram will be featured, but there are options for which combinations see the court. That depth also means that starters can take the occasional rest, and that will pay off at the end of games and also at the end of the season.

The biggest expected weakness is the inexperience of so many likely contributors. Six of the 11 scholarship players will see their first minutes as a Georgia player this year. Perimeter shooting will also start off as a weakness. Roberts and Armbrister were two of the top three outside shooters on a team that only hit 27% from outside. Engram and Robinson have the ability to stretch their games, but you’d prefer guards to be your top outside shooters. Newcomers will have to shoulder much of that responsibility.

Georgia must also establish a physical post presence. Robinson and Engram are outstanding players, but stretch players often aren’t comfortable banging inside. They’ll be matched against more traditional post players, especially on the defensive end, and must rebound and defend without getting into foul trouble. Blanaru will help with minutes off the bench, but you trade size for pace and tempo. Robinson must realize her significance to this team and manage fouls wisely.


The first challenge for Taylor will be to find the right mix of young and old. There is a solid returning core but also a large and talented crop of newcomers. Even the best freshmen often aren’t used to playing defense at the standard Taylor sets, and there are times when Taylor might trade offensive explosiveness for more sound defense and ballhandling. The deeper bench is a net positive, but it also means that Taylor has more combinations and lineups to consider and evaluate.

The schedule lends itself to some early success as the team develops its chemistry. Home games against Texas and Georgia Tech as well as trips to Virginia and BYU highlight the nonconference slate. Other games will allow Taylor to play all 11 (and sometimes 12) and experiment with her lineup. It’s not the toughest non-conference schedule Georgia has faced, and the risk is that the team won’t be conditioned for the rigors of the SEC or have enough quality wins to merit NCAA consideration. Things get real right away in SEC play as national runner-up Mississippi State comes to Athens on New Year’s Eve. The SEC rotation is about as favorable as it can get as the Lady Dogs will only see most of the league’s heavy hitters once. Georgia’s home-and-home SEC opponents this year are Florida, Vanderbilt, and Ole Miss.

SEC coaches project Georgia to repeat their eighth-place finish in the conference. Those are moderately higher expectations from a year ago, but an eighth-place finish would likely leave Georgia sweating the NCAA Tournament selections. The SEC did earn eight bids a year ago, but Georgia was passed over for Auburn. It’s often a game or two that separates fifth and ninth place. Georgia did well to win enough close games to improve on their expected finish last season, and they’ll need the same kind of resolve to win the handful of games that could decide whether they finish in the top half of the SEC or on the cusp of a Wednesday SEC Tournament play-in game.

Taylor got her first squad to the NCAA Tournament in 2016, and that team avoided becoming the first Georgia team to miss consecutive NCAA Tournaments. That possibility is back on the table for 2017-2018. If the newcomers take a while to develop and Taylor can’t settle on a rotation, they’ll need to pull some major upsets within the conference to have a shot. There aren’t many opportunities to get a big win in nonconference play, so at least a .500 record against Texas, Tech, Virginia, and BYU seems necessary. If some of these talented freshmen do emerge early and Cole proves capable of running the show, we might have to revise expectations upward. At the very least, it should be some of the more fun and entertaining Lady Dogs basketball we’ve seen in Athens in four or five years.

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