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2017-18 SEC Basketball Season Preview: Georgia Bulldogs

Yante Maten is one of the SEC’s best players, but the Bulldogs have question marks seemingly everyone else.

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at Georgia Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

Georgia Bulldogs 2017-18 Season Preview

Head Coach: Mark Fox (145-118, 8 years; 268-161, 13 years overall)

Last year: 19-15 (9-9 SEC); KenPom rating: 61

Returning starters: 4

Returning possession-minutes: 72.1%

Recruiting class ranking: #41 nationally, #9 in SEC


How Did We Get Here?

In 2016-17, Georgia was oh so close.

The Bulldogs went 9-9 in the SEC; they played each of the conference’s three Elite Eight teams — Kentucky, Florida, and South Carolina — and they lost those six games by an average of 6.3 points, with road games at Kentucky and Florida going to overtime. Star forward Yante Maten was injured two minutes into a late-season tilt with Kentucky in Athens, and the Bulldogs still managed to lead with less than a minute left before falling. Aside from a slip-up against Oakland in December, they mostly beat the teams they were supposed to beat, and they went 1-10 against teams that made the NCAA Tournament.

The end result was a team with a 19-15 record, decent computer numbers, and only a win over Vanderbilt to hang their hats on. What could have been, indeed.

The next try will have to come without J.J. Frazier, who graduated after averaging 18.8 points and a ludicrous 26.1 points per game after Maten’s injury late in the season; Frazier leaves ranked seventh on Georgia’s all-time scoring list.

But the Bulldogs dodged a bullet when Maten pulled his name out of the NBA Draft. So Georgia at least has a player to build around; the question is, uh, who are the pieces around him?

Mark Fox might have the least job security of any head coach in the SEC entering the season — though that probably says as much about the other head coaches in the league as it does about him. He’s established a pretty solid floor at Georgia, as the Bulldogs have finished below .500 in SEC play just twice in his eight years there (and one of those was in his first year.) But seasons like 2016-17 are why his seat is getting warm: Georgia has made the NCAA Tournament just twice in eight years, and haven’t gotten out of the first round either time.

And having to replace a player like Frazier just when you absolutely have to have a good season? Well, that’s not good.


Frontcourt

# Player Height Year Notes
1 Yante Maten 6'8" Sr. 18.2 ppg/6.8 rpg
5 Pape Diatta 6'7" Sr. 2.6 ppg/1.9 rpg
13 E'torrion Wilridge 6'6" Jr. 2.1 ppg/1.6 rpg
20 Rayshaun Hammonds 6'8" Fr. #50 recruit
24 Connor O'Neill 6'6" Jr. walk-on
30 Isaac Kante 6'7" Fr. #362 recruit
32 Mike Edwards 6'9" Jr. 4.4 ppg/3.6 rpg
33 Nicolas Claxton 6'11" Fr. #228 recruit
34 Derek Ogbeide 6'8" Jr. 7.1 ppg/7.6 rpg

Yante Maten might not be the SEC’s best player, per se, but he’s probably the most important to his team. Georgia avoided the worst when Maten got injured in the Kentucky game, as the Bulldogs managed to go 3-2 down the stretch — though they had to claw out wins over Alabama, LSU, and Auburn, and that largely happened because Frazier managed to pick up the slack. Georgia lucked out because at 6’8” and 240 pounds, he’s a classic NBA tweener: too small to play inside, but not a good enough shooter to function as a three or four.

There’s really no question that Maten will be the focal point of Georgia’s offense; the question here is whether Maten sticks with doing what’s effective or if he tries to play outside more to satisfy NBA scouts — and if so, whether he’ll be good at that. The latter course might end up being better for Maten, but the former may well be better for Georgia. Either way, there’s a good chance that Maten will be the SEC’s leading scorer.

Georgia also has one of the SEC’s best rebounders in 6’8” junior Derek Ogbeide, who pulled off the rare feat of having more rebounds than points as a sophomore. He’s pretty good at scoring around the rim (56.7 percent shooting) and also averaged 1.1 blocks per game.

On the other hand, he mostly deferred to Maten and Frazier on the offensive end, averaging just 5.2 shots per game — mostly on putbacks and dunks. And he might be the best candidate to be Georgia’s second scoring option, which is a bit scary going into the season.

Things are a bit more unsettled alongside (and behind) Maten and Ogbeide, though. One of the stranger developments late in the season was the sudden deployment of 6’6” junior E’Torrion Wilridge, who averaged 9.3 minutes per game (in the games he actually played; in five games, he was DNP - Coach’s Decision) over the team’s first 25 games, then suddenly entered the starting lineup and averaged 31.6 minutes per game over the Bulldogs’ last nine.

Wilridge didn’t do a whole lot offensively over that span, averaging 3.9 points per game, but his insertion into the starting lineup roughly coincided with a hot stretch that saw the Bulldogs go 5-3 (with two of the losses coming to Kentucky.) He’s got some potential but through two years it hasn’t translated into production, though he did shoot 61.9 percent inside the arc.

A 6-foot-7 senior, who played 10.8 minutes a game after coming in as a JUCO transfer, likely isn’t much more than a reserve at this point. 6-foot-9 junior Mike Edwards functioned as a backup to Maten and Ogbeide; he’s flashed some potential in two years but still commits too many turnovers and fouls to be reliable.

The Bulldogs also add a top 50 recruit to the frontcourt in Rayshaun Hammonds. The 6’8” freshman from Norcross, Georgia, is a classic three who could play alongside Maten and Ogbeide, though his jump shot is a work in progress. Two more freshmen join the frontcourt. Nicolas Claxton is the son of Charles Claxton, who played at Georgia in the 1990s. The younger Claxton was rated as a four-star recruit by ESPN and three-star by the 247Sports composite. At 6-foot-11 and 215 lbs., he’s got pretty clear potential but will probably need a year in the weight room before he’s ready to bang down low.

Isaac Kante, a 6-foot-7 freshman, comes to Georgia after a prep year at Putnam Science Academy, where he played with Kentucky freshman Hamidou Diallo. Kante is an undersized banger who will probably spend a year as a backup.


Backcourt

# Player Height Year Notes
0 William Jackson II 6'4" Jr. 4.1 ppg/1.1 apg
2 Jordan Harris 6'4" So. 4.7 ppg/1.5 apg
3 Juwan Parker 6'4" Sr. 9.3 ppg/5.3 rpg
4 Tyree Crump 6'1" So. 3.6 ppg/0.7 rpg
10 Teshaun Hightower 6'4" Fr. #394 recruit
11 Christian Harrison 6'4" Jr. walk-on

Where the Bulldogs’ frontcourt might be a strength, the backcourt is a giant question mark. 6’4” redshirt senior Juwan Parker is a good on-ball defender, but his offensive game has never come along; in 2016-17 he shot 38.3 percent from the floor and a woeful 15.7 percent from three. He was Georgia’s third-leading scorer, but that seemed to be mostly a reflection on the lack of reliable scoring options outside of Maten and Frazier than anything else.

Who replaces Frazier at the point is a mystery. Georgia has three guards who were highly-touted as recruits but haven’t done much in college. 6’4” junior William Jackson II (16 starts) and 6’4” sophomore Jordan Harris (12 starts) split time alongside Frazier last year, with Jackson averaging 17.5 minutes per game and Harris, 16.5 minutes.

Harris showed a better jump shot (42.6 percent on three-pointers) but committed way too many turnovers for comfort, averaging 4.5 per 40 minutes. Jackson was considerably less turnover-prone but otherwise didn’t do a whole lot to generate offense, with a 44.3 percent effective FG percentage and a 10.7 percent assist rate — not great numbers.

When 6’1” sophomore Tyree Crump played last year, he showed flashes of good scoring ability: Crump played at least ten minutes 10 times last season and scored in double figures in four of those games. But those occasions were rare — he averaged just 7.4 minutes a game for the season — and his 41.2 percent effective FG was not good. The former four-star recruit might well have the most upside of anyone in the backcourt, though. The best bet is for Harris and Crump to split time in the backcourt, but Frazier leaves a huge hole here.

Georgia picked up Teshaun Hightower, a three-star recruit from Lithonia, late in the recruiting cycle. Hightower will probably be a backup this season.


Schedule

Date Opponent
10/29 vs. Michigan State (exh.)
11/2 Valdosta State (exh.)
11/10 Bryant
11/14 USC Upstate
11/19 A&M-Corpus Christi
11/23 at CS Fullerton
11/24 Wooden Legacy
11/26 Wooden Legacy
12/2 at Marquette
12/5 Winthrop
12/16 at Massachusetts
12/19 Georgia Tech
12/22 Temple
12/31 at Kentucky
1/3 Ole Miss
1/6 Alabama
1/10 at Missouri
1/13 South Carolina
1/16 at LSU
1/20 at Auburn
1/23 Arkansas
1/27 at Kansas State
1/30 Florida
2/3 at Mississippi State
2/7 at Vanderbilt
2/10 Auburn
2/14 at Florida
2/17 Tennessee
2/21 at South Carolina
2/24 LSU
2/28 Texas A&M
3/3 at Tennessee

The first four games of Georgia’s nonconference schedule should be relatively easy, but the Bulldogs could see San Diego State and St. Mary’s in the later rounds of the Wooden Legacy. And then things get tougher, with a trip to Marquette and visits from Georgia Tech and Temple in December, as well as a trip to Kansas State for the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.

The Bulldogs’ SEC schedule is one of the lighter ones. Three of the teams on the schedule twice — LSU, Tennessee, and South Carolina — could finish toward the bottom of the SEC, and who knows what will happen with Auburn. Florida is on the schedule twice, though, and Georgia does open SEC play at Rupp Arena at the end of December.


Outlook

If nothing else, Mark Fox has established a level of consistency at Georgia. Over the last four seasons, the Bulldogs have finished no worse than 78th in the end-of-season KenPom ratings, and they’ve finished at least .500 in SEC play in each of the last five. But while the floor has been pretty high, the ceiling hasn’t been much higher; the Bulldogs have never finished better than 12-6 in the SEC under Fox, they’ve only finished better than 60th in KenPom on one occasion, and they’ve only made the NCAA Tournament twice.

So you kind of know what you’re getting with a Mark Fox team. While the Bulldogs don’t have any established scoring threats outside of Yante Maten, the relative lack of roster turnover (Georgia didn’t have a single player leave with eligibility remaining after last season, a rarity in today’s college basketball) means that there are a lot of guys here who have been in the system for a while and should know what they’re doing.

The bad news, though, is that being competitive in the SEC is a moving target and while Georgia is staying in place (at best), the rest of the league is getting better. The Bulldogs are projected 63rd in KenPom’s preseason ratings. In 2016, that would have been good for the sixth-best team in the league; in 2018, that’s the third-worst team in the league (and one of the teams ranked lower, Missouri, is quite likely to be better than that in reality.)

In other words, Mark Fox carved out a niche as a middle-of-the-pack SEC program that was never outright terrible, but also was never much of a threat to win the league. But now a lot of other programs have made good coaching hires and elevated themselves, and Georgia might not be doing enough to keep up.

That’s bad news for Fox, obviously: Maintaining yourself as a 9-9/10-8 SEC team that occasionally makes the NCAA Tournament can keep you employed for quite a while (especially at a place that hasn’t had much historical success on the hardwood), but it also leaves you with relatively little equity. Frank Martin can survive a finish near the bottom of the SEC because he just took South Carolina to its first Final Four. Fox probably can’t.

This isn’t to say that Georgia is going to be bad this year, but outside of Maten it’s really hard to get worked up about this roster. Fox might be able to squeeze a .500ish season out of this group, but unless the backcourt is far better than it looks on paper, it’s hard to see Georgia doing much better than that.