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Post Women’s basketball is red-hot. Where does Georgia fit in?

Friday April 19, 2024

Driven largely by the Caitlin Clark phenomenon, women’s college basketball drew unprecedented attention and interest over the past several months. Clark’s historic offensive output that led Iowa to consecutive national title games was the lead story, but there’s been much more that made this a compelling season. South Carolina’s undefeated run to the championship with a young and rebuilt roster was one of the more impressive team accomplishments you’ll see, and they needed needed a thrilling buzzer-beater in the SEC Tournament to preserve their perfect season. LSU brought the drama to their chase of back-to-back titles. The Pac 12 and Big 12 produced some of the best teams in the nation, and they’ll be heading for new conferences next season. Freshmen established themselves as the next wave of stars from coast to coast. High-profile transfers made and broke contenders. Women’s basketball, and women’s college basketball in particular, is at a peak.

This explosion of popularity builds on a legacy that goes back over 40 years to the first women’s NCAA Tournament in 1982 (and much further to the true pioneers of the game.) Georgia of course features heavily into that history. The Lady Dogs became a national power early in the NCAA Tournament era. They had a resurgence in the 1990s that saw them enter the new century as SEC champions and remain a regular Sweet Sixteen participant for the next decade. The program’s all-time great players are still familiar names among those with a knowledge of the game. Few schools can boast more WNBA draft picks than Georgia’s 24.

We see elite programs rise and fall in all sports, and it’s unfortunate bad timing that the rising profile of women’s basketball comes as the Georgia program is struggling through a relative lull. Georgia just experienced its first sub-.500 season as an NCAA program, and the 13th-place finish in the SEC was also unprecedented. This wasn’t a sudden drop-off; Georgia’s decline followed a much more gradual path. Georgia participated in 31 of the first 33 NCAA Tournaments. They’ve only played in five of the past ten, and none of those teams reached the Sweet 16. I’ve had plenty to say about the state of the program even before this year’s result, but it’s enough to say that it’s been a battle to maintain and return to the standard set by its first three decades as an NCAA program.

The urgency to return to the upper echelon of programs is greater now with the surge of interest in the sport. What is Georgia’s place in a sport whose popularity is taking off? Will they be left behind with a serious case of FOMO, or is there hope of catching up and joining the party?

The Neighborhood

A deep and cutthroat SEC schedule is nothing new. The league goes to another level in 2025 and will be unforgiving of any team unable to keep up. Consider:

  • South Carolina returns depth at nearly every position from its undefeated national title campaign. Dynamic young players like MiLaysia Fulwiley, Ashlyn Watkins, and Tessa Johnson are poised to take over, and the Gamecocks welcome three top 30 freshmen.
  • LSU and Ole Miss will remain talented and well-coached contenders.
  • Impact transfers will continue to flow into the league while several veterans chose to return for a fifth season.
  • Auburn, Alabama, and Vanderbilt returned to the NCAA Tournament and have shaken up the middle of the conference standings.
  • Kentucky hired Kenny Brooks who built Virginia Tech into a regular NCAA Tournament team and reached the Final Four last season. Brooks will bring All-American guard Georgia Amoore with him.
  • Finally, and most importantly, Texas and Oklahoma will join the league. We took a brief look at what that meant a couple of years ago, and the outlook hasn’t changed. Vic Schaefer turned Texas into a national contender and earned a 1-seed in the 2024 NCAA Tournament. He returns to the SEC where he took Mississippi State to consecutive national title games. In three seasons at Oklahoma, Jennie Baranczyk restored the Sooners as a top 25 program and even edged out Texas in 2024 for the Big 12 regular season title. These programs will immediately challenge for top four positions in the expanded SEC.

To sum up, earning a top four place and double-bye in the SEC will require getting through the past two national champions, an NCAA 1-seed, and the reigning Big 12 champion. That doesn’t even take into account a steady successful program like Ole Miss or rising mid-table programs like Vanderbilt, Auburn, and Alabama. Eight-time national champion Tennessee is going through their own transition but sent a message about their expectations with their coaching change. Finishing in the top half, let alone the top four, of the new SEC will require a team that can consistently beat – and not just show competitiveness against – tournament-quality opponents.

The Roster

Joni Taylor finally began to show some progress in recruiting during her sixth and seventh seasons at Georgia, but those classes fell apart when she left the program. Promising freshmen signed by Taylor transferred after 2022, and all reached the NCAA Tournament in 2024. (Reigan Richardson even became a brief sensation in March during Duke’s NCAA Tournament run.) Taylor’s final class, rated #7 in the nation, followed her to Texas A&M.

A core of upperclassmen remained at Georgia during the transition. Forward Javyn Nicholson headlined the group and developed under Coach Abe into an all-conference player by her final season. The others also saw improvement, but their production wasn’t enough to fill the gap. Excepting Nicholson, the remaining players scored 16.6 points per game in 2023 and, after senior Zoesha Smith went down early in the season with a knee injury, contributed 8.7 points per game in 2024. Coach Abe had a lot of holes to fill on her first roster. Her response mirrored Taylor’s: the bulk of UCF’s top 20 recruiting class followed Abe to Georgia, and she was also able to bring several experienced UCF players familiar with her system. Diamond Battles, Alisha Lewis, and Brittney Smith were key players to help bridge the transition. By the end of Abe’s first season this cobbled-together roster began to mesh, and Georgia finished the season on a strong run into the NCAA Tournament.

The real impact of the roster situation began to show up in year two. Abe’s UCF pipeline had largely dried up. Only one true freshman was signed, and she redshirted. Transfers once again helped but with diminished returns. Fewer players on the roster had more than a year’s experience in Abe’s system, and the outcome was a less-effective defense with few scorers capable of complementing Nicholson.

Coach Abe has had two seasons now to get the lay of the land in the SEC and understand the level of talent it takes to succeed in the league. Abe and her staff aren’t used to losing, and last season’s frustration was hard to hide at times. She now has the responsibility of rebuilding a roster that was not up to SEC – or Georgia – standards. Recruiting matters, and four top 100 prospects will join the team along with another top 100 prospect who redshirted this season. But teams are also making immediate upgrades to their rosters via transfers, and Georgia must have better results among that talent pool to avoid a prolonged rebuilding project.

Ultimately the potential of the program won’t be unlocked until Georgia reverses its fortunes with the deep talent available in its own state. Georgians feature on rosters from South Carolina to LSU to Stanford to Ohio State and across the SEC. Of course the Lady Dogs have signed quality local talent, Que Morrison and Javyn Nicholson being recent examples, but elite talent has been tougher to keep at home. Since 2005, Anne Marie Armstrong is the only Georgia Gatorade Player of the Year to begin her college career at Georgia.

Turning things around in the state has been off to a slow start. The new Georgia staff arrived without much of a presence in Georgia. Abe’s last four rosters at UCF had one player from the state of Georgia. When a top in-state prospect like Essence Cody (now at Alabama) gets her first offer before her sophomore year of high school, it demonstrates that the relationships that lead to commitments are cultivated over years. Abe’s staff, even if they do everything correctly, is playing catch-up for in-state prospects. To complicate things, Abe hasn’t been able to hold a summer camp yet at Georgia. The first few months after Abe was hired in 2022 were spent getting a program up and running. Last summer Stegeman Coliseum was unavailable due to interior construction on the roof. Camps in 2021 and 2020 were affected by the pandemic. It’s tough to establish connections with the young players around the state if you can’t get them on campus. That will begin to change in 2024.

A sub-par roster is exposed quickly in the SEC. Even teams with above-average talent and legitimate NCAA Tournament credentials can find it hard to compete at the top of the conference without elite players. Those players, for whatever reasons, haven’t chosen Georgia for some time. Reversing that situation for both prep prospects and transfers isn’t easy, but that’s the story of Georgia basketball over the past 15 years.

Still more…

So if the strength of the conference and the headwinds in recruiting weren’t enough, what else is Abe dealing with?

  • NIL. There’s no escaping the influence of NIL for any college sport. If you watched the women’s tournament, you saw several players featured in national ads, and that’s tremendous. NIL has also given some athletes the flexibility to remain in school for another year, and that’s been a boon to those sports. But aside from those endorsements we’re also talking about the NIL collectives of the individual schools and the murkier realm of bidding for players. Every school deals with it, but keep one thing in mind: not only is Georgia women’s basketball competing against its peers in the NIL space; it’s also competing against a successful football program with its own voracious appetite for NIL contributions. Fans willing to support women’s basketball are also under pressure to support Kirby Smart’s loaded roster, and those fans can only be stretched so far. The women’s basketball program encouraged its fans to donate earmarked dollars to NIL rather than to the disbanded semi-independent booster club.
  • Long-term vs. short-term development. Watching a player like Diamond Battles who developed over the course of a career was a treat. Experienced players whose execution of a coach’s system becomes second-nature are the foundation of successful teams. Javyn Nicholson, in just two seasons under Abe, blossomed into one of the SEC’s best players. There’s little question about Abe’s ability to develop players or that her system can work at the highest level in the sport. But in the age of the transfer portal, can you depend on players sticking it out through the full development cycle before your system bears fruit? And with the competition able to change dramatically from year to year via transfers, does a coach have the luxury of patiently developing an experienced roster before showing progress?
  • Contributions from newcomers. Along those lines, freshmen have had little to no impact on the program in Abe’s first two seasons. It’s not that she is recruiting stiffs. UCF’s 2022 class that followed Abe to Georgia was rated 21st – very respectable for a mid-major program. Last season’s lone signee, Miyah Verse, was a top-100 prospect. It’s entirely reasonable that Abe would prefer players with more experience in her system. That experience will be thin next season, and Georgia will bring in another good class of four top-100 prospects. Impact freshmen were all over the women’s college basketball scene this season from Southern Cal to Notre Dame to South Carolina. Georgia might not have the next JuJu Watkins or Hannah Hidalgo, but Georgia and Abe’s success over the next one or two seasons will depend on getting more immediate production from newcomers whether they be freshmen or transfers.

It seems like a daunting task to get Georgia women’s basketball in a position to be lifted by the sport’s current rising tide, and it is. At the same time, basketball is a sport where one or two elite pieces can be added to a solid foundation and take a program to national prominence. The payoffs for getting it right are growing both in the abstract sense (media and fan attention) and the literal sense (endorsements and NIL deals for players and big contracts for coaches) – both of which can help sustain a top-level program. The risk is falling into a losing cycle of coaching changes and the inability to reap the rewards of winning that attract top prospects. It’s a pivotal moment for the sport and increasingly so for Georgia’s future in it.