Chris Brown of Grantland and Smart Football wrote during the summer of 2013 about an emerging approach to offense called “packaged plays”. Offenses combined options for run and pass within a single play that could lead to very different decisions and outcomes based on what the defense showed. The concept allows for offenses to push tempo by keeping play calls simple (or even unchanged) while keeping the defense guessing. Brown illustrated with just one play from Ole Miss that included all of the following:
Ole Miss combined a five-yard hitch route to the single receiver to the left, an inside zone, a quarterback read-option keep, and a receiver screen to the offense’s right. And as a final wrinkle, their tight end ran an “arc” release to block an outside linebacker.
We’ve seen these plays spread throughout college football and even the NFL, and variants like the pop pass are some of the most well-known / infamous / notorious plays in college football’s recent history. Now it appears to be Georgia’s turn. Whether you call it a “packaged play” or an “RPO” (run-pass option) in Schottenheimer’s NFL-flavored playbook, the idea is the same. Of course as the Senator points out, Lambert’s lack of mobility reduces (but doesn’t entirely eliminate) the QB run option, but Georgia’s variety is more likely to be a handoff combined with the option for a quick slant or WR screen – exactly what we saw against South Carolina.
Georgia’s October 10th game at Tennessee will be at 3:30 on CBS. It will be Georgia’s third appearance in the SEC’s marquee slot. Another scheduled CBS broadcast for the Florida game means that at least half of Georgia’s SEC games will be on CBS. Three remaining SEC games (Missouri, Kentucky, and Auburn) haven’t been picked up by any network yet.
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The Banner-Herald highlights an issue I’ve been stewing over for a month or so. I’ve been a season ticket holder for women’s basketball for a little more than ten years. This summer, we received a letter alerting us to a ticketing change:
Season ticket holders will be located in six sections…with general admission seating offered in those sections on a first-come, first-served basis. Seats in those six sections will be reserved for season ticket holders until the five-minute mark of the first quarter.
No more reserved seating. A “season ticket” (at the same price as before) will now only buy you access into certain restricted sections before the game with no guarantee of a specific seat or section. Shortly after tipoff, all sections will become general admission.
The rationale is this: between unsold reserved tickets and no-shows, fans are scattered throughout the seating area. Making tickets general admission should lead to a crowd that is more compact and closer to the court. That should increase crowd involvement and noise and help the homecourt advantage. A “season ticket” that allows access to specific sections prior to tipoff is offered as a premium.
This plan is similar to something Georgia tried during the 2014 NIT. Tickets were sold as general admission, but Basketball Enhancement Fund contributors received priority on seating in Sections D, E, and F. I’ll admit – it worked. Crowds were small but close the court and involved in the games. Still, it was an ad-hoc ticketing plan for a postseason event for which Georgia only had a couple of days to come up with a way to distribute tickets. Men’s basketball went right back to reserved seating for the 2014-2015 regular season.
The difficulties come from how people actually attend games. It’s the difference between fans and administrators who perceive a problem (“we need a better homecourt advantage”) but who attend games with credentials rather than tickets. These are just a few examples of some practical concerns you’d hear from season ticket holders:
The most loyal boosters are offered a “chalk talk” before the game where coaches discuss the matchups and state of the team. It’s a fantastic perq. With the new plan, these fans must either claim seats and leave personal items behind or risk losing their seat while away at the chalk talk. These are also the fans most likely to have season tickets, and this booster club was not consulted on the change.
Fans coming from the Atlanta metro struggle to make it much before the 7 p.m. weeknight tips. They’re left to take what seats are available.
At $40, a season ticket is steep but not out of reach for fans of teams with large followings (think UT or South Carolina) who want to take over premium sections.
Fans have built up relationships with those sitting around them year after year. Areas of different sections have even developed their own personalities as groups of friends and families congregate in their familiar locations. Now they must deal with the inconvenience and stress of saving seats, hoping they arrive on time to sit with friends, and accepting that they might have to watch this game from another section.
Yes, these are largely minor inconveniences. But why intentionally inconvenience your best fans? The experience of going to the game is now diminished by the uncertainty of where you’re going to sit and with whom. My friend Red put it well: “What’s the point of having season tickets?” If the concern is filling up the lower bowl, I have much less of a problem with allowing fans to claim unused seats after five minutes.
Decisions like this usually come down to money, but I can’t see how this move will result in more revenue. Fans can now just buy tickets to the subset of games they plan to attend. The timing is odd, too. The program is on shaky ground, there’s a new and unproven head coach, and the last time we saw the team on the Stegeman court they scored a whopping 26 points. At a time when the athletic department should be building excitement for the renewed energy in the program, they unnecessarily piss off the people most likely to buy in.
All that said, I renewed my tickets. I’m willing to still support the program, and I guess we’ll see how this turns out. I expect that a lot of us will gravitate towards the seats we’re used to. I’ve been a fan long enough to know what loyalty will get you, but with more and more games on the SEC Network, I expect I’ll have a tougher decision in a year.
Georgia’s adventures with special teams has been a topic of questioning and criticism (and sometimes just bewilderment) as long as Mark Richt has been here. It probably surprised some readers to learn that Georgia’s kicking specialists were sometimes left to work on their own.
CBS’s Jon Solomon has an interesting piece demonstrating how that’s the norm across college football. Even dedicated special teams coaches rarely have experience with kicking – Solomon found that only two special teams coaches at Power Five schools have a kicking background. The article goes deeper into how many top programs approach their special teams coaching and why there are so few kicking coaches in the college game. We usually associate special teams coaches with coverage or returns, but who coaches the kickers? Often it’s themselves.
It explains why we sometimes hear about specialists going back to work with private instructors. They’re just not getting that attention from their college teams. And with so little kicking experience on most staffs, kickers seem to prefer no attention to the wrong kind of attention.
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As preseason camp comes to a close, the biggest question facing the Georgia program remains unresolved. With the possibility of the starting quarterback decision lingering into the season, we’re not much closer to a resolution. It might or might not be down to two candidates – even that much can’t be confirmed. What we do have though is a broader sketch of what the coaches are trying to evaluate.
We’ve also seen discussion of the attributes each of the three candidates brings to the field. By this point we can distill each guy down to one key strength: Ramsey – upside. Bauta – work ethic. Lambert – intellect. You’d love to combine elements of all three, and each strength makes sense in different situations. I’m sure that’s some of what’s been making the decision tougher than we’d like.
While things like arm strength (gotta make the throws!), avoiding turnovers, and not tripping while handing off to Chubb matter, former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner says something else should be near the top: learning the playbook. Warner is writing in a more general context of making an NFL roster spot, but it applies to the quarterback hierarchy too. A quarterback with a shaky understanding of the playbook limits what the coaches can call and, potentially much worse, can screw up the execution of the plays that are called. No surprise there. We’ve read for several weeks how Lambert’s quick study of the Georgia offense has him right back in the mix.
But as Warner points out, the challenge isn’t just learning the playbook of the team you’re on. It’s reconciling your new playbook with everything you’ve already learned elsewhere. As Warner explains, what a newcomer like Lambert will do at first is how most of us approach a second language: performing translations on the fly to our native tongue. It isn’t until much later (or even until a long period of immersion) that you begin to think in the idioms and vocabulary of your second language. Lambert is very likely still speaking “Virginia” in his head as he translates Georgia’s offense.
And that takes time to master. From what I’ve experienced, new terminology is not fully adopted by a quarterback for one year. They’re still able to call plays and function in a system before then, but it’s difficult to get beyond thinking and learn to react…It’s why every year, a huge contingent of playoff teams will be those that came into the season with a quarterback who already “spoke their language.”.
You’d expect that to put Lambert at a disadvantage, but the great equalizer is Brian Schottenheimer. The other quarterbacks are also adjusting to a new playbook even if it’s more of a new dialect rather than a completely new language. Though much of Georgia offense will remain the same in philosophy, Schottenheimer admits that “we probably just call it something different.” Georgia’s other quarterbacks have had a little longer than Lambert to make this transition, but if Warner’s estimate of one year is accurate even for somewhat simpler college playbooks, there’s still some ongoing adaptation of the new system by all of the quarterbacks.
Schedule is already a part of the 2015 discussion, and it’s something we like to look at before the season gets going. Many Georgia observers are pointing to the Alabama-Tennessee-Missouri stretch as a key to Georgia’s season, but mid-to-late November could also put the Dawgs up against a couple of top 15 teams.
We’re familiar with Georgia’s schedule, but equally important is where Georgia falls on the schedules of their opponents. Will they be coming off a bye, an FCS opponent, or a grueling stretch of SEC games? At first glance, Georgia fans should like where the Dawgs appear on most of these schedules. Here’s what each opponent will face before they take on the Dawgs.
Louisiana-Monroe: A long, brutal summer.
@Vanderbilt: vs. Western Kentucky
For most SEC teams, this is a moderately-interesting mid-major tuneup against a WKU team that finished with a winning record and a thrilling Bahamas Bowl win. For Vanderbilt, this is nearly a pick-em: most early lines have Vandy as a 1.5 to 2-point favorite. An early loss would deflate what little enthusiasm there is for the second year of Derek Mason. An unexpected big win would get the buzz going about another tight Vandy-UGA game in Nashville.
South Carolina: UNC, Kentucky
The Gamecocks start the season with two fairly strong tests. The North Carolina game in Charlotte will be a good measuring stick for both teams. The Kentucky game will be a rematch of a Wildcat upset in 2014. Georgia fans will be watching that SC-UK game to gauge their confidence for the Gamecocks’ trip to Athens.
Southern: A battle of the bands (they win.)
Alabama: Ole Miss, Louisiana-Monroe
Alabama will get not one but two September quality opponents. They’ll start with a neutral-site game against Wisconsin and a couple of weeks later will try to avenge their 2014 loss in Oxford. Alabama will be more than battle-tested in time for their first true road game of the season at Georgia. People starving for common-opponent comparisons will note that both Georgia and Alabama play ULM.
@Tennessee: Oklahoma, WCU, @Florida, Arkansas
Much will be / has been made about Georgia’s “trap game” at Tennessee, but the Vols will have three tough opponents of their own in the four games before the Bulldogs visit. They’ll have a high-profile home game against Oklahoma and an important trip to Gainesville that could establish or diminish the SEC East hopes for both schools. A physical game against Arkansas likely won’t give the Vols much time to look ahead.
Missouri: @Kentucky, South Carolina, Florida
Like Georgia, Mizzou will have played half of their SEC East slate before this mid-October game. The difference is that the Tigers will see three straight divisional foes before they visit Athens. If this is to be the year Missouri fades from the top of the division, it’ll show up during this stretch. On the other hand, these are the only teams that could keep Missouri from rolling into Athens undefeated. (They won’t lose to UConn, right? Right?)
Florida: Ole Miss, @Missouri, @LSU, BYE
The Gators will have the usual bye week before the WLOCP, but the rest of their October looks tough. This was the time when things began to fall apart for Muschamp last season (not that it mattered in Jacksonville), and we should know plenty about Jim McElwain’s first season after facing this stretch that includes Ole Miss and two difficult road games.
Kentucky: Auburn, @Miss. St., Tennessee
We’re in the thick of the conference schedule by this point, and Kentucky has a tough few games before they play Georgia. Not much else to say here. Unusual to see Kentucky play Tennessee before the end of the season, but the Louisville game takes that spot now.
@Auburn: @Arkansas, Ole Miss, @Texas A&M
There are a number of reasons why Georgia thumped Auburn last year, but I have to think that three straight dramatic one-score games took a toll on the Tigers before they came to Athens. It’s a similar path for Auburn this year: before Georgia comes to town, Auburn must run an SEC West gauntlet at Arkansas, back home against Ole Miss, and then at Texas A&M. Once again, what will be left in the tank for Georgia?
Georgia Southern: BYE, @Troy
I just wanted to make sure GSU didn’t have a bye directly ahead of the Georgia game, but they have the next best thing – a bye followed by a weak, rebuilding Troy team. Give them a little time to focus on Georgia, a Bulldog team looking ahead to Tech, a sleepy Sanford Stadium crowd, and this one could be close for longer than we’d like.
@Georgia Tech: BYE, Virginia Tech, @ Miami
Tech doesn’t have a bye or even a cupcake ahead of the Georgia game, but they do play their November schedule at a leisurely pace. After a bye, they’ll close conference play with some big games against Virginia Tech and Miami. They should be fairly well-rested at this point late in the season though: the Thursday night game against the Hokies will be their only game between November 1st and November 20th.
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There’s a lot of football of course but also a significant men’s and women’s basketball game. I would have liked to have seen some baseball (1990 CWS win? Keppinger’s Coastal Carolina game in 2001?), but they can only work with the video they can get. At any rate, the DVR will be busy on Friday.
One of the first topics that came up during our roundtable discussion was our concerns for the upcoming season. “What keeps you up at night?” was the way the question was put. I went right for the familiar answers – quarterback, receiver, even defensive back (side note – is it me, or has the secondary kind of been lost in the shuffle?). When I had some time to think about it though, there’s something else that this team is going to have to work through that’s bigger than any one position.
What keeps me up at night? October.
It’s not just the schedule, though that’s a big part of it. October has not been kind to Georgia over the past couple of seasons. You can go back to the shocking implosion at South Carolina in 2012 setting off a couple of shaky weeks that threatened to derail the season until Shawn Williams spoke his mind. Georgia was riding high after the LSU win in 2013, but October brought injuries and losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt(!) that all but erased the momentum from two big wins in September. Last season of course we spent October dealing with the drama of the Gurley investigation and suspension, and the bombshell at the end of the month that the suspension would be four games rather than two was not the best way to head into the WLOCP.
So…October. A tough rematch with South Carolina is the biggest obstacle between Georgia and an undefeated September. But even if Georgia can navigate the first month of the season, they’ll then have a stretch of three weeks featuring:
The most hyped game in Athens since 2013 LSU (and probably another Gameday visit)
A trip to face Tennessee in a classic letdown situation
A return home to play the defending SEC East champs in front of a sleepy Homecoming crowd
That’s enough of a potential roller coaster even without the additional handicap of injuries or suspensions or whatever curveballs October has thrown at us lately. Top it off with a trip to Jacksonville with the unknown of a new Gator coach and the memory of last season’s horror still fresh, and it all makes for a lot of sleepless nights – and an exciting challenge.
It’s Todd Gurley Day around the Bulldog Nation as we wait for the NFL Draft and salute those headed to the next level. These are my top five Gurley memories looking back on a career that seemed to go by as fast as one of his kickoff returns. Have some of your own? Let’s hear them in the comments.
1. The Auburn kickoff
Yes, it was called back. The anticipation for Gurley’s return from suspension was at a fever pitch when Auburn came to town. For a moment, it was right out of a movie script: Gurley’s first touch of the ball in over a month was a 100+ yard kickoff return that sent the frenzied stadium into pandemonium…until we saw the flag. Still, in what would prove to be his final game as a Bulldog, Gurley delivered one of the most electrifying moments I’ve ever seen in Sanford Stadium.
2. His debut: Buffalo 2012
Gurley calls it his favorite game. The true freshman wasted no time introducing himself to the home crowd. Gurley posted three touchdowns, including a kickoff return, and put up 100 yards of rushing on only 8 carries in one of the most spectacular debuts for a Georgia player.
3. Later, Gator
Gurley only played against Florida twice, but only perhaps Jarvis Jones had as much to do with sustaining Georgia’s winning streak. In two games against some very stout Florida defenses, Gurley put up 218 yards rushing and two touchdowns. He added 110 receiving yards and one memorable long touchdown reception. His 2013 performance was especially tough: sitting out several games with an injury took a toll on Gurley’s conditioning, but he had enough in the tank to push Georgia to a 14-0 lead before he was sidelined.
4. 2012 SEC Championship
This great game had so many twists and turns that Gurley’s contribution is easy to forget. He didn’t rip off any long scoring runs or go for 250 yards. What he did do was grind against the nation’s best defense in a de facto national semifinal. Only two teams managed to rush for more than 100 yards against Alabama in 2012. The freshman Gurley went for over 120 yards on his own.
5. Clemson 2014
How could we not mention this game? Gurley was already a household name coming into the 2014 season, but this game took his status from a star to an early-season Heisman favorite. It started with the first half kick return, but Gurley really made jaws drop in the second half when Georgia’s running back depth finally wore down the Clemson defense. He managed 198 yards rushing (on only 15 carries!), finished with a school record 293 all-purpose yards, and accounted for four touchdowns.
Bonus: Tech 2013
Wins over Tech always deserve a little mention, and Gurley accounted for every yard of Georgia offense in overtime. Gurley didn’t have the best numbers in regulation, as Tech’s defense focused on the run and forced first-time starter Hutson Mason to put the game on his shoulders. Gurley was held to 72 yards of rushing in regulation but still had one touchdown rushing and one receiving. He broke through in overtime, scoring in just three plays and then made quick work of the second overtime in a single 25-yard scoring run. He finished the day with 122 rushing yards and four total touchdowns.
For all of the success that Mark Fox has started to bring to the Georgia basketball program, the start of the season remains a thorn in the program’s side. November in particular has been unpleasant, and nothing illustrates that frustration better than the current four-game losing streak to Georgia Tech. Fox’s teams have been a combined 24-25 in November games or in games up through the Tech game. The program is 11-18 in those games during the past four seasons.
Of course there are always mitigating factors. Kenny Gaines started the past season recovering from an illness that had wiped him out. November usually features a holiday tournament with some fair-to-exceptional competition, so these losses aren’t coming (for the most part) against RPI killers. The Dawgs usually find their wind, and this season’s unbeaten December after a 3-3 start helped to launch the team into the NCAA Tournament.
Righting the Tech rivalry on the home Stegeman Coliseum court should be an important milestone in next season’s quest for a consecutive NCAA Tournament bid. To that end, next season’s game won’t take place until December 19th. Of course there’s nothing magical about the date. The Dawgs have lost to Tech in both November and December during the current losing streak. But it should at least give the Dawgs an opportunity to overcome any preseason issues and acclimate a new frontcourt before this very important nonconference game.
The last time Tech and Georgia played that late in the season was in January 2010 when Mark Fox’s first Georgia team upset a Tech team ranked #17 at the time. More significant than the date though is the coach: Tech’s Brian Gregory hasn’t taken a team to the postseason in his four seasons, but he’s a perfect 4-0 against Georgia. The Dawgs should have the roster, the home court, and now the favorable schedule to end that streak.
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After what athletic director Greg McGarity called a “national search,” he only had to look down the hall to find Andy Landers’ successor. Associate head coach Joni Crenshaw, a four-year member of the Lady Bulldogs staff, has been promoted to head coach.
At 36, Crenshaw is a grizzled veteran compared to when Andy Landers took the job at age 26. Crenshaw played her college ball at Alabama and has spent time as a key assistant and successful recruiter at, among other places, Alabama and LSU. She’s been with Georgia four seasons and was quickly promoted to associate head coach. She understands the standards set for the program and said that Georgia has the “resources, facilities, and support to do things on a national level.” Competing on a national level is exactly what’s expected of her.
For those who have been around the program during the past four seasons, this is a popular hire. Joni is well-liked, sharp, engaging, and exactly the energetic woman you’d want as the face of a program. She’s been impressive and a fan favorite breaking down opponents during the pregame “chalk talk” with boosters. She’s made many friends in Athens in her brief time at Georgia, and she has the relationships with other coaches and the media that you’d expect of the recruiting coordinator of a major program. We’ve heard that a bloc of Lady Dogs alumni were squarely in Crenshaw’s corner, and that’s a significant endorsement.
With that popularity in mind, it’s difficult to get an objective read on the promotion. Everyone is thrilled for her, and they should be. This is a tremendous opportunity and payoff for someone who has worked hard towards this moment. Both McGarity and Landers praised her “character” and “deep-rooted values and morals,” and those have become important traits for this program. Crenshaw called Georgia basketball a “people program,” and she has the personal foundation to keep it that way. Georgia fans can be confident that the emphasis on doing things the right way from the gym to the classroom will continue under Crenshaw.
The message implied by this promotion though is that the program was in good shape. Deputy athletic director and Lady Bulldog alum Carla Williams, a point person in the coaching search, said plainly, “The program’s not broken.” Andy Landers put things differently when he retired. “We weren’t doing what we built this thing to do,” he concluded.
True, a program two years removed from the Elite Eight isn’t a flaming wreck. If things were that bad, it would have been much easier to take action. What happened at Georgia was more gradual and prone to rationalization. Georgia hasn’t been to the Final Four since 1999, but they still made the tournament and occasionally advanced to the regionals. They didn’t have All-Americans but still had several quality all-conference candidates and occasionally had a WNBA draft pick. Georgia went from a title contender to, as Landers put it, “trying to figure out what we had to do to win a four-seed in the SEC.” Many teams would be happy with a fourth-place SEC finish, but it wasn’t what Landers had built and worked for. For better or worse, Crenshaw has been a part of that. It might be a positive that she’s had a front row seat to identify some of the issues, but she’ll also have the challenge of untangling herself from the inertia that led to the gradual decline of the program.
Some of that decline came in recruiting, and Crenshaw was brought on board in part to help shore up recruiting. She contributed to top 10 classes at both Alabama and LSU, but it’s been a while since Georgia has had a class like that. There has been some progress: the Lady Dogs signed two top-100 players a year ago and have another on the way in 2015. Still, Georgia has been on the outside looking in for some elite prospects in the state and region, and one of Crenshaw’s first tasks should be to reevaluate and rework the recruiting process in which she has played a major role.
To her credit, Crenshaw didn’t waste much time addressing one of the biggest recruiting deficiencies. “I want to talk directly to recruits in the state of Georgia,” she said in her opening statement. “You are our first priority.” With that stake in the ground, it will be interesting to see what actions take place beyond what the program was already doing. At the very least, there’s one opening on the staff with possibly more to come *. Crenshaw will have an early opportunity to make this a stronger staff and begin the tough job of marketing Georgia against some very stout competition.
* Though Crenshaw’s future husband is an accomplished assistant coach for a successful South Carolina program, do not expect him to join Georgia’s staff. Williams said such a possibility “wasn’t even asked about,” citing Georgia’s nepotism laws.
Promoting a program’s top assistant isn’t uncommon, but it’s often tough to follow a legend. Holly Warlick has managed several SEC regular season and tournament titles since replacing Pat Summitt, but even Warlick has faced criticism for a lack of Final Fours and national titles. Georgia has gone down this path several times whether it was with Ray Goff or Ron Jirsa or Jay Clark. While it’s unfair to project those results on Crenshaw, that’s the lens through which many Georgia fans will view this hire.
Crenshaw’s cultural fit is outstanding, and she has over a decade in the business to qualify her for the job. Whether she was the best candidate available or considered is another question with less clear answers. We don’t know who else was interviewed or even offered the job, though Williams confirmed that Georgia spoke with candidates participating in the Final Four. Notre Dame’s Niele Ivey was rumored to be a top candidate as well as Connecticut’s Shea Ralph and a couple of successful mid-major head coaches.
I really hope that this process didn’t come down to money. We’ve been through this with the football program, and the stinginess of the athletic department is a favorite hobby horse of Georgia bloggers. It was unlikely that Georgia was going to throw Dawn Staley money around and make that kind of a high-profile statement, though a major commitment to restore one of Georgia’s most successful programs wouldn’t have been beyond the pale. It would be more troubling though to learn that Georgia’s offer wasn’t even enough to attract assistant coaches from top programs, let alone successful head coaches.
It does Crenshaw no favors to compare her against hypothetical candidates. She was the best choice for the deal Georgia was willing to offer. It’s enough that she’ll be measured against the standards set by her predecessor. She’s correct that Georgia’s coach will have the “resources, facilities, and support” to get the job done in a state full of good basketball talent. Georgia’s returning roster is good enough to get her head coaching career off to a positive start, and a little early success will go a long way to raise her profile.
I might as well start here: I wouldn’t have met my wife had Andy Landers not given her a graduate assistantship. My reaction to his unexpected retirement on Monday isn’t going to be very impartial. So it’s been with much of the reaction I’ve seen this week – everyone has a story, a connection, or a personal memory.
As we reflect on Landers’ career, the relationships rise to the top. He has such a magnetic and ebullient personality that it’s impossible to start with anything other than the relationships. When you’re reading things like this from the media that covered the team, let alone the players he coached, you begin to get a sense of the presence that Landers developed in his 36 years in Athens.
For me, though, the relationships came later. The Red & Black writes that “Andy Landers will be remembered by his legacy as a leader and a man, not as just a coach. That’s true, and it’s the kind of sentiment you naturally turn to in these eulogistic pieces, but the “just a coach” part was what got me to follow the program.
He could coach. That seems silly to write about a guy pushing 900 wins, but it’s easy to get caught up in the caricature of Landers as the folksy cow farmer with the scowl on the court and the wry sense of humor off the court. He built his empire of over 850 wins, 20 Sweet Sixteens, 11 Elite Eights, five Final Fours, and two national title games by developing, teaching, and demanding that his teams play an uncomprimising style of basketball. His well-known tirades weren’t random outbursts; they were the consequences of falling short of the expectations of Georgia basketball. Landers knew when his players were capable of more, and almost always they were.
Basketball is what drew me to follow the team, and an appreciation of the game played and coached at a high level earned my respect long before I met the coach. I was hooked during the SEC Tournament run in 1993 when longshot Georgia knocked off highly-ranked Tennessee and Alabama on consecutive days to reach the finals. I was fortunate to be there during the march to the Final Four in 1995. I’ve seen the heartbreak in 2004 and 2013 when teams worthy of the Final Four came up just a possession short. Before you even get to know about the man on the sideline, this was a fun brand of basketball to watch and be around. For a basketball fan at Georgia looking for a taste of success, the men’s program was a perpetual tease. Landers delivered.
Two things stand out to me about Landers’ teams at their best: guard play and relentless pressure defense. I don’t mean to short the great forwards and posts to come through the program: Harris and McClain of course, Henderson, Thomas, Robinson, Humphrey, and others I could spend the rest of this post listing. But special guards became the hallmark of the program. It starts with Edwards. Roundtree and Holland were outstanding in the mid-90s. They were followed by the amazing backcourt of Nolan and the Miller twins. Sherill Baker was one of the best defenders you’ll ever see. Even towards the end, Houts and James developed into the backbones of their teams.
These guards and athletic forwards were essential not only for their scoring and floor leadership but also for executing Georgia’s press defense. The press went hand-in-hand with a tight man-to-man approach. Georgia’s bread-and-butter press was the 2-2-1 described here. As Landers noted, the press was an effective counter that made Georgia a difficult opponent. “Because most teams do not press, we do. By pressing, we upset offensive tempo, create excellent scoring opportunities, and win on off-nights.”
That formula worked for most of Landers’ career. With his best teams it was devastating, and his other teams could gain an advantage that helped them “win on off-nights” and pull some memorable upsets. So what’s changed? First, Landers’ observation that “most teams do not press” isn’t the case anymore. Enough teams run variants of press defenses either in their halfcourt defense or as a full-court press that it’s not an exotic experience to see pressure. Presses can be and are still effective even when you prepare for them, but it’s something teams face more often than not now in games and in their own practices.
The second change has to do with the roster. For several years Georgia has lacked the depth and the talent to run their preferred press, often falling back into a 2-3 zone in the halfcourt. Landers’ attention to defensive fundamentals has made Georgia a capable defensive team even in the leanest years. The difference has been the team’s ability to “create excellent scoring opportunities” as Landers described in his rationale for running the press. A team playing even an active 2-3 zone isn’t going to create the same turnovers and transition chances that you’ll get from full-court pressure. When your team thrives on those transition points, and especially when you struggle to generate points from your own halfcourt offense, getting away from the press is going to affect wins and losses.
We dug into the talent issue back in 2009, and many of the same points still apply. Georgia isn’t recruiting at the level it once did, and that’s limited what Landers has been able to do using the strategies that led to so much success. When he said that the past few seasons have been about “trying to figure out what we had to do to win a four-seed in the SEC,” it’s a by-product of recruiting. Elite talent has gradually given way to above-average talent that’s been good enough to make the NCAA Tournament and compete for a top-four SEC finish. It hasn’t been good enough to compete for titles at the national or even conference level, and that was the vision Landers had for the program. “We weren’t doing what we built this thing to do, and that responsibility is mine,” he admitted. I give him tremendous credit for that admission. Many people with the accomplishments and accolades that he’s earned have enough of an ego and enough sycophants around them that the situation can be rationalized. As Landers put it, he tried to spin the situation as human nature leads us to do, but it wouldn’t spin.
Though the ultimate responsibility does lie with Landers, it’s worth peeling back a few layers. We’ve used the 2003 departure of assistant and recruiting coordinator Michael Shafer as a dividing line. Georgia hasn’t appeared in a Final Four or won an SEC title since. That has less to do with Shafer than it does with the management of the program. Georgia has had difficulty finding and then retaining assistants who can perform at the level you’d expect of a national contender. It’s affected both recruiting and player development. Georgia’s current staff has been together about three years now, and that’s long enough to just start gaining traction after so much ground had been lost.
(A related thought: When you look at successful programs, a great head coach is often supported by at least one long-term assistant who’s as highly regarded among assistants as the head coach is among his or her peers. Every staff has turnover, but how many top programs have that one key experienced associate coach? Chris Dailey at UConn. Holly Warlick at Tennessee under Summitt. Nikki McCray-Penson at South Carolina. Amy Tucker at Stanford. Vic Schaefer at Texas A&M during their national title run. Carol Owens at Notre Dame. Bob Starkey at LSU. Georgia simply hasn’t had anyone in that league. As Georgia’s assistants have struggled with inexperience and a lack of continuity, Landers had to be much more hands on, and even the best coach can’t do it without a strong staff.)
To use Landers’ phrase, it shows how “spoiled” we’ve become to dissect a perennial NCAA Tournament program like this. But it was his vision and legacy that the program would have higher standards, and no one recognized the state of the program better than the man who built it. He didn’t need the athletic director or any of us to tell him that things had slipped from the expectations he had set. He just reached a point where he didn’t see a way back under his leadership.
It’s going to be tough going for Landers’ successor. There’s the whole following a legend thing, but there are more concrete concerns first. While the program won’t be starting from rock-bottom, any new coach will have to deal with the inertia of a very established culture. He or she won’t have to start from scratch teaching the expectations of winning or hard work, but there are bound to be conflicts against the inertia of a 30+ year way of doing things. Georgia has a capable group of rising seniors, and getting buy-in from that leadership from the start will go a long way for the sake of continuity.
Recruiting will be what makes or breaks the new coach, and he or she can have immediate success by improving Georgia’s in-state recruiting. The number of top prospects leaving the state is too long to list, and with powerful programs nearby at Tennessee and South Carolina, it will be a big but necessary job making Athens a destination for Georgia’s best. For the right coach, the Georgia position has much to offer: a talent-rich home state, a high-profile and competitive conference, an established and supportive fan base, outstanding facilities and resources, and the deep pockets of a successful SEC program. The tools are in place for a capable coach to attract (or keep home) the kind of talent it will take to reestablish Georgia as an SEC contender.
Those deep pockets will be put to as much of a test with this hire as they were during the football offseason. This isn’t the athletic department of 1994 when it took the threat of a lawsuit to properly pay its women’s coaches, but Landers still wasn’t on the cutting edge of compensation. Attracting a quality head coach and assembling the type of staff we described above will likely cost more than it did to retain the outgoing Hall of Fame coach. The wallet opened up for the football program after the 2014 season, and it will be interesting to see how aggressive the offer is to find Landers’ successor. South Carolina famously caused a stir when they offered Dawn Staley $650,000 in 2008, but that risk has paid off with a top 5 program.
I have no idea in which direction Georgia will or should go. There’s the sentimental instinct to look for someone with ties to Landers. Do you look outside the program for a fresh approach? Do you look for another young coach out of relative obscurity with the possibility of another decades-long run, or do you look for the security of an established veteran? When Andy Landers has been the only coach the program has known, there just isn’t a precedent to follow.
It’s been a sad few days reflecting on this inevitable transition. With any change though there’s the excitement and optimism that a new direction is the answer. Lady Dogs fans can look to the legacy of Andy Landers to know what’s possible at Georgia, but that same legacy will set some high expectations for the next coach. With a solid returning roster, some key pieces working back from injury, and some talented incoming freshmen, the opportunity is there for an immediate impact.
The SEC women break the Nashville/Duluth cycle this year and head west to Arkansas this week for their 2015 tournament. North Little Rock has hosted the tournament three times already, most recently in 2009. While there is a clear favorite this season, the battle to make it to Saturday and beyond is a toss-up.
At the top of the standings, it’s been pretty much as expected. South Carolina and Tennessee finished with a single conference loss each, and no one would be surprised to see them square off for the championship. There have been some interesting developments in the next tier of teams. Mississippi State has been a great story. LSU could be considered a bit of a surprise as well after disappointing nonconference results. Texas A&M and Kentucky are used to finishing a little higher than they did, and each has been vulnerable. With so much SEC Tournament experience between those two teams, you almost expect one of them to make a little noise from the 5 and 6 seeds.
The bottom of the field has also seen some shifting. A slew of midseason injuries left Georgia, once comfortably among the top third of the league, fighting just to avoid the ignominy of playing on Wednesday. Missouri put together a run and a couple of upsets at the end of the season to merit the 7 seed. Vanderbilt has had a season below their standards while Ole Miss took a nice step forward. Alabama and Auburn rose to the middle of the pack last season but have returned to the bottom.
1) South Carolina (15-1): If last season’s SEC regular season championship announced the arrival of Dawn Staley’s program, this year’s campaign showed the conference that the Gamecocks liked it at the top. The next step for Staley? An SEC Tournament title. Despite the regular season crown in 2014, South Carolina fell in the semifinals and didn’t play for the tournament title. They’ve been the league’s most dominant team all season, though recent challenges from Tennessee and Kentucky shows that the champs have plenty of work to do before they’re crowned in Little Rock. They won’t have to face either of those teams until the championship game on Sunday.
As with any champion, the Gamecocks are talented, well-coached, and confident. There’s a slew of experienced players returning starting with All-American guard Tiffany Mitchell. Senior forward Aleighsa Welch is the team’s leader and sets the tone with an incredible work rate around the basket. A stellar freshman class including forward A’ja Wilson and lightning-quick point guard Bianca Cuevas has elevated the team to contend for the national title.
2) Tennessee (15-1, 23-4): While South Carolina deservedly enters the tournament as the favorite, how can you overlook the team that’s won four of the last five tournaments? Tennessee has dropped three games outside of the league to very good opponents, but they’ve only fallen once in conference play: a very competitive loss at South Carolina that went down to the final possession. Tennessee still thrives on relentless defense and aggressive rebounding, and that will do against most teams.
The Lady Vols took a big hit recently when center Isabelle Harrison was lost for the season, but the team showed at South Carolina that they can still be dangerous without her. There’s still a tremendous amount of talent, and forwards Cierra Burdick and Bashaara Graves can step up in place of Harrison. Ariel Massengale and Andraya Carter lead a veteran backcourt. Tennessee doesn’t go that deep, so they’ll need big production across the starting five to repeat as tournament champions.
3) Mississippi St (11-5, 26-5): No team has made a bigger jump this season. MSU has improved from 13th a year ago to third under third-year coach Vic Schaefer. They raced out to an 18-0 start against a typically weak schedule, but they’ve held it together in conference play. Their 11 SEC wins and 26 overall wins are both program records. If a loss at Vanderbilt can ever be considered a bad loss, that’s their only blemish. MSU has knocked off three teams ranked at the time – Georgia, West Virginia, and Texas A&M. They’ve yet to claim a top 10 scalp, though they went to two overtimes against Kentucky. With the Wildcats their likely Friday opponent, that rematch could be one of the more entertaining quarterfinal games.
The Bulldogs can shoot, hitting more three-pointers than anyone but Missouri. But they succeed by doing the little things well: they’re near the top of the league in rebounding, free throw percentage, and blocks. Martha Alwal remains one of the league’s most well-rounded post players, but she’s had some help this year from freshman wing Victoria Vivians. There’s a deep and experienced pool of guards that make it difficult to key on the posts or on any one shooter.
4) LSU (10-6, 16-12): Heading into conference play, the Tigers were a flat 6-6 with some head-scratching losses. An early-season suspension for leading scorer Danielle Ballard turned LSU into a very ordinary team. Ballard returned soon after the SEC schedule started, and the Tigers have rebounded to become a contender for an NCAA bid despite their overall record. They have impressive wins against Kentucky and Mississippi State, but some inconsistency down the stretch is troubling. They beat a short-handed Texas A&M team to close the season, but that win snapped a streak of three losses in four games including an ugly loss at Arkansas. The Tigers are guard-focused with Ballard and Raigyne Moncrief carrying most of the load. If they can get addtional outside production from DaShawn Harden or any inside production, it’s a bonus. The win against A&M earned them the double-bye, and they’ll likely have to face the Aggies again to make the semifinals.
5) Texas A&M (10-6, 22-8): It’s a familiar place for A&M: they’re not at the top of the standings, but they’re comfortably among the next group. The Aggies weren’t competitive with Tennessee or South Carolina but have an additional three losses by a combined 6 points. They lost point guard Jordan Jones for the season last week against Missouri, and they’ve dropped two straight games without her. A&M is the anti-Missouri, attempting few outside shots, and they depend on that point guard position for penetration and passing inside the arc. Jones is also one of the league’s top defenders. The absence of Jones likely won’t cost them in their first game, but Friday’s game would be a rematch against LSU – a team that just beat the Aggies by 17 on Sunday.
6) Kentucky (10-6, 21-8): The Cats have been highly-ranked all season, but they’ve found it tough to stay near the top of the SEC. They missed a chance to upset Tennessee in Lexington, and there’s no shame in any of their losses. They also have an impressive set of wins over ranked teams, and they captured the biggest win of the season with a Senior Day upset of South Carolina. Their frenetic defense and pace is enough to give them a chance against any opponent. They took a graduation hit in the frontcourt, but a strong senior class led by guard Jennifer O’Neill has plenty of postseason experience. Kentucky was able to knock off top-seeded South Carolina in the tournament last season, and Sunday’s upset of the Gamecocks was a reminder that even the 6-seed could make a deep run in this tournament.
7) Missouri (7-9, 17-12): Three! No SEC team is more dependent on the three-pointer. They don’t shoot the league’s best percentage, but no other team attempts or makes more than the Tigers. When they’re falling, they’re able to beat Texas A&M in College Station. They’ve had some success against the bottom of the conference (not to mention the upset of A&M), but the more talented teams of the league have been able to match up against their guards. Mizzou has been hot down the stretch, winning five of their last six games, so an appearance in the quarterfinals isn’t out of the question.
8) Ole Miss (7-9, 17-12): Their in-state rivals might be the SEC’s most improved team, but the Rebels aren’t far behind. In three seasons, Ole Miss has gone from the disgrace of postseason ineligibility to a last-place finish a year ago to a very respectable middle-of-the-pack result in 2015. It hasn’t been smooth sailing: they started SEC play 4-1 but lost seven straight before righting the ship. They’ve knocked off Georgia, Arkansas, LSU, and Kentucky in Oxford but haven’t done much of note away from home – always a concern for the postseason. Forward Tia Faleru is the league’s best rebounder.
9) Arkansas (6-10, 16-12): When you’re (re)building a program, you want to see a team that’s improved over the course of the season. That’s what you’ve got with Arkansas. The Hogs started out 1-6 in the SEC under first-year coach Jimmy Dykes, but they won five of seven games to get back into the discussion for an NCAA bid. A rout of red-hot LSU shows that this is a team to avoid in your bracket.
10) Georgia (6-10, 18-11): On January 22nd, the Lady Dogs pulled off a mild upset of #10 Texas A&M. It was a low-scoring, defensive battle – the formula that had worked to propel them to a 5-2 SEC record, 17-3 overall. Georgia then dropped a competitive game at Tennessee, but it was the loss of the team’s best scorer and defender, Shacobia Barbee, that changed the season. The tight games that had gone Georgia’s way became close losses, and a litany of injuries piled up as Georgia dropped eight straight and went winless in February. Georgia’s young players have made progress since the injuries afforded more playing time, and they were able to break the losing streak in the season finale at Florida. Georgia’s 20-year NCAA Tournament streak seems to be over, and they’ll have to make do in a spoiler role here.
Georgia’s been led by the backcourt in the past few seasons, but that’s changed a little this year especially without Barbee in the lineup. Merritt Hempe has continued to improve at center, and her return will help the team. Senior forward Krista Donald continues to be a warrior, and All-SEC freshman Mackenzie Engram has been a nice addition. Halle Washington has stepped up in Hempe’s absence.
Guards have struggled with consistency, and it starts with the point guard spot. Freshman Haley Clark has earned more and more playing time and a couple of starts down the stretch, but it’s been tough when so much of the offense runs through the point. Tiaria Griffin, Erika Ford, and transfer Pachis Roberts are all capable of big nights but are just as likely to be ice-cold. Fortunately their defense has been more consistent, but that defense has had little margin for error as the team has struggled to score.
11) Vanderbilt (5-11, 14-15): It’s the dreaded rebuilding year for Vandy. They’ve retooled with a taller but very inexperienced lineup that’s taking its lumps. That doesn’t mean they’re toothless: Vandy has knocked off Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Arkansas and could be a dangerous first or second round opponent. But as an inexperienced team, they’re just as likely to bow out on the first night.
12) Florida (5-11, 13-16): A year after squeaking into the NCAA Tournament, Florida has taken a step back. Florida was unspectacular in nonconference play, and their best conference win was a comeback in Athens during the Georgia collapse. The Gators feature their guards, but consistency, depth, and frontcourt production have been problems.
13) Auburn (3-13, 12-17): A dismal season got even worse after a midseason brawl with rival Alabama. The fallout from the brawl led to the dismissal of leading scorer Hasina Muhammad, and the Tigers seemed headed to a winless SEC season. They turned some heads with a comeback and near-upset against Ole Miss, and they finally broke through into the win column with a win at Georgia and closed the regular season with three straight wins. Guard Brandy Montgomery has stepped up, and the team’s pressure defense can be maddening. They’re not a sure one-and-done team at this tournament.
14) Alabama (2-14, 13-18): The Tide have lost quite a bit of ground from their surprising 7-9 campaign a year ago. Narrow wins over Auburn and Missouri are all that separate Alabama from a winless season, and the upsets that got them to seven wins in 2014 didn’t happen this year.
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