Georgia basketball season is near, and head coach Mark Fox is debatably in a make-or-break year. The Bulldogs have a solid team this season, and even good enough to make it to the Big Dance.
Last season, Georgia had to deal with the losses of forwards Nemanja Djurisic, Cameron Forte and Marcus Thornton. After those three graduated, Georgia didn’t have any significant depth. As a result, Fox’s club finished 20-14 and 10-8 in the SEC.
This upcoming season follows a similar storyline in terms of players lost as Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines made their way out of the program after four productive seasons. However, a host of highly-regarded newcomers have made their way to Athens and this team’s fate will be different than that of 2015-2016.
As the Bulldogs tip-off the regular season in 15 days against Clemson, there are five key reasons that lead me to believe that Georgia will be returning to the NCAA Tournament this coming March, after falling short last season.
As previously mentioned, Georgia has key players that have just entered the program prior to this season, and that group will try to replace the vacancies of Gaines and Mann and inject some depth into the Bulldogs’ rotation.
From the prep ranks, Georgia added two four-star guards, Tyree Crump and Jordan Harris. This South Georgia duo can bring immediate production to the team as they showed the ability to perform at a high-level prior to enrolling into college.
Crump ranked as the fourth-overall prospect in the state of Georgia, while Harris fell just behind at eighth, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings.
In addition to the two prep additions, Georgia also added forward Pape Diatta from the junior college ranks. Last season at Southern Idaho, Pape Diatta averaged 12.9 points per game, and 8.3 rebounds per game. Either in the starting lineup or playing a significant role off of the bench, Diatta will bring much-needed depth and experience to the Bulldogs.
Lastly, Georgia is getting an addition with the return of redshirt senior forward Juwan Parker, who missed nearly two full seasons after suffering a torn Achilles injury. Parker was a starter for Georgia prior to going down, and is known for being a lockdown defender. Parker can settle back into a leadership role with J.J. Frazier and Yante Maten and help the Bulldogs through the ups-and-downs of a college basketball season.
These four “additions” for Fox will bring him more balance throughout the roster, and the blend of younger players with the potential to have an immediate impact and experience gives Georgia the best chance to reach the NCAA Tournament this season.
“I think we have the balance,” Fox said, via Jason Butt of The Telegraph and macon.com. “Hopefully, we have the balance similar to what it was two years ago when we had scoring from lots of places. We are deeper. I think we’ll have far greater competition for minutes. I think no matter how split the group up, Team A vs. Team B in practice ought to be extremely competitive because of our depth. It should allow us to accelerate how fast we improve.”
Down season for SEC
Aside from Kentucky, who is again in position to contend for a National Championship, the conference has a logjam for the top three in the conference. Florida, Georgia and Texas A&M are the preseason favorites to compete for the runner-up spot.
Due to their being no clear contender below the Wildcats, Georgia has an opportunity to take advantage of those weaknesses. All three of the assumed contenders have impact players on their roster, such as Texas A&M’s Tyler Davis and Florida’s John Egbunu, however it could be outweighed by losses throughout the conference due to graduation.
If Georgia is able to reach the semifinals of the SEC Tournament, which has been the case for the past three seasons, they’ll be in a much better position to earn an NCAA Tournament berth.
With Gaines and Mann departed, Georgia can now focus their offense around the talents of Frazier and Maten. As one of the most reputable 1-2 punches nationally, the two upperclassmen have big expectations on them, both on and off the court.
Both Frazier and Maten averaged over 15 points per game for the Bulldogs last season, and will look to improve upon that. However, their presence brings the opportunity for other players to be productive.
“It helps because you can’t key in on one guy,” Frazier said in July. “Yante’s going to get a lot of attention because of what he did in the post last year. Therefore, he’ll open the game up for a lot of us. We’ll do the best we can to play off of each other, help each other be better no matter who’s the leading scorer or rebounder. Our main goal is to win, and that’s how it has been for the last four years under (head coach Mark Fox). As long as we play ‘next man up,’ that’s our best bet.”
Look for these two to lead Georgia in many statistical categories, but also to assume more of a leadership role, both by example and inside the locker room. Their talents and mindset on the upcoming season gives Georgia a legitimate chance to meet the expectation of reaching the NCAA Tournament.
For the third consecutive season, Georgia will hold one of the nation’s best non-conference schedules. The 2016 slate includes Clemson, Marquette, Georgia Tech, Texas, George Washington and potentially Kansas.
If Georgia is to pull off a win or two against these top-tier programs, they’ll put themselves in good position for a berth in the Big Dance. In the previous two seasons, Georgia had opportunities to build their resume, but the Bulldogs weren’t able to capitalize.
Look for Fox and staff to place an emphasis on winning these games outside of the SEC as the tournament committee focuses on quality wins rather than solely the strength of schedule.
Every four seasons, the NCAA allows a team to take a trip overseas to play against professional clubs. Over the summer, Fox took his group to Spain to play all-star teams throughout the nation, in Barcelona, Madrid and Valencia.
Georgia won all three of their games overseas, and the players were given real-time exposure to teams and got to compete against other talented athletes.
With the Bulldogs’ freshmen slated to play significant minutes, the opportunity could be beneficial. This exposure could give Georgia an advantage, simply due to the extra time they had on the court.