Those examining the state of the Georgia men’s basketball program could easily come to a couple of very different conclusions:
Mark Fox, entering his eighth season, has established a steady program, the only one outside of Kentucky to go to three straight SEC Tournament semifinals. And with two of the SEC’s top returning players, the Bulldogs are poised to take the next step. Or …
Georgia has not won a single NCAA Tournament game in Fox’s tenure (or since 2002) and has eked into only two NCAA bids in his seven years, failing to take advantage of a weak SEC. The last bid came two years ago, and the Bulldogs were hoping to build on that in 2016 but only made the NIT.
The powers-that-be at Georgia take the first view. Athletic director Greg McGarity, the point man for firing football coach Mark Richt — good-but-not-great in 15 years — sees basketball undergoing a different “journey,” given its weaker history.
“You’re seeing a lot of positive steps there,” McGarity said after last season. “We’ve just got to go out and win some games now.”
All SEC predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2016-17 Preview Magazine, available in our online store and on newsstands everywhere.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Mark Fox
2015-16 RECORD (SEC): 20-14 (10–8)
2015-16 POSTSEASON: NIT: Lost to Saint Mary’s 77–65 in the second round
2016-17 PREDICTION: Fourth in the SEC
G Kenny Gaines (13.2 ppg, 3.0 rpg)
G Charles Mann (10.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg)
Yante Maten was so good as a sophomore last season that it was legitimate to wonder if he could explore the NBA Draft. Luckily for Georgia, he didn’t, and he returns to form the “inside” part of what sets up to be a potent inside-outside duo of veterans.
Maten is coming off a breakout season in which he averaged 16.5 points and a team-leading 8.0 rebounds per game. He was good defensively, blocking 61 shots, and has a smooth outside touch, going 8-for-15 on 3s. He figures to take more this season.
The big question is what post presence Georgia will put around Maten. That’s where a healthy Derek Ogbeide comes in. Last year, Ogbeide projected as the other possible starting forward, but a preseason shoulder injury delayed the start of his career. When he came back, he eventually started 15 games and proved to be a rebounding machine, hauling in 13 in a win at Mississippi State. This season, the onus will be on Ogbeide to show his offensive wares.
Mike Edwards, another sophomore, could take some of the post offensive workload off Maten, but first Edwards needs to be more refined. He’s athletic and runs the floor well, but he missed too many close shots last year.
Houston Kessler, a fifth-year senior, can offer some defense and occasional offense. Pape Diatta is a junior college transfer who projects as a stretch-4 and could get extensive minutes in some matchups.
J.J. Frazier is the outside part of Georgia’s veteran scoring duo, and he serves as evidence that pure grit can still overcome being small and under-recruited in today’s college basketball. Frazier, generously listed at 5'10", led the Bulldogs with 16.9 points and 4.4 assists per game last year and pretty much kept South Carolina out of the NCAAs by himself, thanks to his shot-making and steal in the final minute of their SEC Tournament game.
But there will still be some games where Frazier can’t lead by himself from the outside, especially with Kenny Gaines and Charles Mann having graduated. Enter Jordan Harris and Tyree Crump, two four-star prospects who can score. Crump is known primarily as a shooter, while Harris can play both guard positions.
Could one or both start? Sophomore Turtle Jackson, who was a four-star recruit a year ago, will have something to say about that. Jackson played sparingly last year because of the players ahead of him, but he showed what he could do in the SEC Tournament, when he drilled three 3s against Kentucky. This year, look for Jackson to play a lot of point guard, allowing Frazier to play off the ball and try to create his shot that way.
The Bulldogs also return senior Kenny Paul Geno, who can provide solid minutes at small forward, and sophomore E’Torrion Wilridge, who showed flashes last year and offers good length at 6'6".
Georgia needs scoring, and it hopes its three new players provide it. Tyree Crump and Jordan Harris have been connected for a while — they’re both guards from South Georgia — and they loom large in the program’s future. But Crump’s shooting will be much needed right away, and whatever Harris can provide in scoring and defense will be huge as well. As for Pape Diatta, he was signed to contribute right away, whether it’s as a stretch-4 starter or for significant minutes off the bench.
The presence of Maten and Frazier makes Georgia a contender for an NCAA bid. The key is how good the supporting cast around them proves to be. If it’s very good, the Bulldogs have a chance to be a deep and dangerous team. If it’s not, the they are likely to fall short of the NCAAs again.