South Carolina basketball beat writer David Cloninger looks at every other team in the SEC as the season approaches.
Oct. 31 Alabama
Nov. 1 Arkansas
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Nov. 2 Auburn
Nov. 3 Florida
Coach (record at school, years; overall record, years): Mark Fox (106-89, seventh year; 229-132, 12th year)
2014-15 record (SEC finish): 21-12 (11-7)
2014-15 postseason: First round, NCAA
He’s outta here (senior unless otherwise noted): F Nemanja Djurisic (11.0 ppg, 5.2 rpg), G Taylor Echols (1.4 ppg, 0.5 rpg), F Marcus Thornton (12.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg), G Dusan Langura (transferred to Mississippi Valley State, 0.0 ppg, 0.0 rpg), F Cameron Forte (transferred to Portland State, 4.0 ppg, 2.8 rpg)
He’s here (freshman unless otherwise noted): 6-4 G Will “Turtle” Jackson, 6-6 F E’Torrion Wilridge, 6-9 F Mike Edwards, 6-6 F Connor O’Neill, 6-8 F Derek Ogbeide
Top returners: 6-3 G Kenny Gaines (11.7 ppg, 3.4 rpg), 6-5 G Charles Mann (11.2 ppg, 4.9 rpg), 5-10 G J.J. Frazier (9.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg)
Time to give the man his due – Mark Fox is a helluva coach.
He’s had plenty of detractors. “He can’t recruit Atlanta.” “He can’t compete in the SEC.” “He doesn’t get to the tournament.”
All have weighed in during his run at Georgia, and he’s risen above them. The Bulldogs made the second NCAA tournament appearance of his tenure last year, and they have the luxury of returning a lot of the talent that got them there. While they lost some key players – leading scorer and rebounder Marcus Thornton graduated – the Bulldogs may have the best backcourt in the league.
Fox has three 20-win seasons among his first six, finished second in the SEC two years ago and five of his players are from Atlanta or its suburbs. This despite playing in one of the worst gyms in the league (now that the Tad Pad at Ole Miss is going away, perhaps THE worst) and recruiting to a place that challenges Alabama in the hierarchy of “football, football recruiting and spring football” as the three most important sports on campus.
This season could be the one to get Georgia’s fans to really appreciate what they have.
It starts with the guards, Kenny Gaines, Charles Mann and J.J. Frazier each a 30-minute player last year and able to get hot at the right times. Mann runs the show at 6-foot-5 and Gaines is the best defender, while Frazier drives opponents batty with how he somehow gets the ball off from a 5-10 frame. He dropped 37 on Mississippi State last year and delivered the knockout punch against South Carolina in the SEC tournament – from 25 feet and after the Bulldogs called two timeouts on the same possession.
The frontcourt will have to quickly develop. Georgia lost Thornton and Nemanja Djurisic and while Yante Maten returns, he’s more of a shot-blocker than a scorer. The Bulldogs signed five players, four 6-6 or over, and getting them to play up to SEC snuff by midseason may be the key to their postseason chances.
The team has depth, a lot of veterans and some modestly high-profile recruits – homegrown Will “Turtle” Jackson decommitted from Connecticut to stay in Athens. Fox hasn’t gotten a lot of five-stars – but he’s won often enough without them.
Coach (record at school, years; overall record, years): Joni Taylor (first year)
2014-15 record (SEC finish): 19-12 (6-10)
2014-15 postseason: None
He/she’s outta here (senior unless otherwise noted): Coach Andy Landers (retired), F Krista Donald (8.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg), G Erika Ford (5.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg), F Samantha Glodis (transferred to North Georgia, did not play), G Sydnei McCaskill (transferred to Florida Gulf Coast, 0.0 ppg, 0.0 rpg), Jasmine Carter (sitting out this year due to a medical hardship, 1.6 ppg, 0.5 rpg), Nasheema Oliver (transferred to Georgia State, 3.0 ppg, 2.0 rpg)
She’s here (freshman unless otherwise noted): Taylor, 6-3 F Caliya Robinson, 6-2 G/F Shanea Armbrister (So., transfer from Darton (Ga.) College), 6-0 G Amber Skidgel
Top returners: 5-10 G/F Shacobia Barbee (11.6 ppg, 6.9 rpg), 5-7 G Tiaria Griffin (11.3 ppg, 3.8 rpg), 6-2 F Mackenzie Engram (7.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg)
The league lost a big piece of its identity when Pat Summitt stepped down at Tennessee.
While the SEC could be stronger than ever this year, it took another step away from the old days this summer when Georgia’s Andy Landers retired.
For so many years, it was Summitt and Landers, Landers and Summitt. The two had a feisty relationship, Landers winning games but Summitt winning championships (including one over Landers in 1996). It’s what made the league so ground-breaking in women’s basketball – two certain Hall-of-Famers often playing each other with some of the best talent in the country on their respective squads. They are both foundations of the SEC in general, not just the sport.
But like the cornerstone he is, Landers decided to step away and not risk crumbling the building he created.
Landers had his critics over the last decade – his recruiting didn’t seem to reel in the elite players he once had and the league became much more than Tennessee. Georgia was still Georgia, and the Bulldogs still won, but cracks were starting to deepen.
Georgia lost its first four SEC games for the first time two years ago. Last year, the Bulldogs were mired in an eight-game losing streak, the worst of Landers’ 36-year tenure, after leading scorer and rebounder Shacobia Barbee broke her leg.
Even with a handy and legitimate excuse – Georgia was 17-3 when Barbee was hurt, and couldn’t regain its footing in a 2-9 finish – Landers didn’t want to risk “staying too long.” The five-time Final Four coach had been to the Elite Eight in 2013, but 2014 was a year where Georgia barely extended its 20-year streak of NCAA appearances and 2015 was the end of it. The Lady Bulldogs declined a WNIT berth and Landers stepped away.
Joni Taylor was hired less than a month later after four years on staff, three as associate head coach. The Alabama graduate is an SEC veteran and used Landers’ common line – he got her the second time around, after failing to land her when she was a prep standout in her native Mississippi.
Taylor knows how to recruit, knows the league (in another twist, she was married this summer to former South Carolina women’s assistant Darius Taylor) and knows how special Georgia is. While the Lady Dogs never got that elusive national title, they’re one of the sport’s stalwarts – Landers made them that way.
While USC, Mississippi State, Texas A&M and Kentucky have passed Georgia in challenging the Lady Volunteers’ long reign, Taylor knows the Bulldogs aren’t out of the hunt. It will take work to get back there, but she feels she has the tools to do it. Barbee is healthy and Georgia returns four of its top five scorers.
“It’s still overwhelming. Your head’s still spinning,” Taylor said. “Andy recruited me when I was in high school … I’ve been in the league coaching now for seven years. The ownership (Landers) gave me really got me here.”