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SEC Hoops Preview Series: Georgia

To get everyone up to speed on the upcoming basketball season, AOG is running down all fourteen teams in the SEC. Today's preview: Georgia, where Mark Fox looks to build on a surprisingly good year.

I don't need a clever caption.  This is humorous enough.
I don't need a clever caption. This is humorous enough.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

We're counting down the days to basketball season, and to get everybody up to speed on the state of hoops in the SEC, I'm writing previews for each of the 14 teams.  All work is my own, though I am relying on kenpom.com and sports-reference.com for some statistics.  Teams will be previewed in reverse order of projected finish (according to me, anyway), so as this is the tenth of 14 previews, this is the team I project to finish 5th in the conference.

Georgia Bulldogs 2014-15 Basketball Preview

How Did We Get Here?

In 2013, with SEC Player of the Year Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on the team, Georgia went 15-17, 9-9 in the SEC.  Caldwell-Pope would declare for the NBA Draft after that season, and with a hodgepodge of players coming back who weren't that highly touted as recruits, most assumed that Georgia would slide to the back of the SEC without Caldwell-Pope and that Mark Fox's fifth season in Athens would probably be his last.

Instead, the Bulldogs defied almost every reasonable expectation with a 20-win season that saw them finish in a tie for second in the SEC -- with Kentucky! -- and make the second round of the NIT.  The Bulldogs' NCAA Tournament resume was hurt by a 6-6 non-conference record, but given that Georgia far exceeded expectations and would be welcoming most of the team back for 2014-15, Fox clearly earned himself another year.

How on earth did that happen?  Well, the SEC schedule-makers did cut the Bulldogs a few breaks: per Pomeroy, Georgia played the weakest conference schedule of any SEC team, only seeing Florida, Kentucky, and Tennessee once each.  But that alone doesn't explain how the Bulldogs went 13-3 against the rest of the SEC: playing South Carolina and Mississippi State twice each helped, but Georgia also swept Missouri and LSU and split with Arkansas.

Basically, the Bulldogs turned winning ugly into an art form: they didn't shoot well and committed too many turnovers, but they rebounded well and allowed the SEC's lowest effective field goal percentage on the defensive end.  The question when Fox took over in Athens was whether he'd be able to recruit well enough to win at Georgia, particularly since he was coming from Nevada and had never recruited at all in the South.  But last year suggested that if Fox can get his players to buy into his philosophy, maybe it won't matter (and maybe he'll eventually figure out that "recruiting" thing.)

Projected Depth Chart

Quick note: For starters, I'm using the five "traditional" positions on the floor even if the players may be listed otherwise on the roster, so you may see guards appearing as forwards, forwards appearing as centers, etc.  Recruiting rankings are the composite rankings from 247sports.com

Losses
  • Brandon Morris (25.4 mpg, 8.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg); transfer/Cal State Bakersfield
  • Donte Williams (21.9 mpg, 4.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg); graduated
  • John Cannon (18 games, 4.6 mpg, 1.4 ppg, 1.1 rpg); transfer/UNC-Asheville
  • Tim Dixon (7.8 mpg, 0.8 ppg, 1.3 rpg); transfer/Columbus State
Starting Five
  • PG Charles Mann (6'5", 215 Jr., Alpharetta, GA)
  • SG Kenny Gaines (6'3", 200 Jr., Atlanta, GA)
  • SF Cameron Forte (6'7", 220 Jr., Tempe, AZ)
  • PF Nemanja Djurisic (6'8", 230 Sr., Podgorica, Montenegro)
  • C Marcus Thornton (6'8", 235 Sr., Atlanta, GA)
Top Reserves
  • F Yante Maten (6'8", 240 Fr., Pontiac, MI); #55 PF and #221 overall
  • G Juwan Parker (6'4", 200 Soph., Tulsa, OK)
  • F Kenny Paul Geno (6'6", 200 Soph., Booneville, MS)
  • G J.J. Frazier (5'10", 150 Soph., Glennville, GA)
Bench
  • C Osahen Iduwe (6'10", 235 Fr., Benin City, Nigeria); #36 C and #333 overall
  • F Houston Kessler (6'8", 225 Soph., Newnan, GA)

While the departure of Brandon Morris -- dismissed from the team after getting arrested on felony drug charges -- will draw a lot of attention, graduated senior Donte Williams is probably the bigger loss.  Williams wasn't a big offensive threat, but he did a lot of the dirty work on defense and on the glass.  For a team that relied a lot on defense and rebounding, that could be a pretty big loss.

Even for a team that returns 73 percent of its minutes from last season, there isn't really an obvious candidate to replace Williams.  Marcus Thornton can handle a lot of the defense and rebounding (6.1 rpg, 1.3 blocks last year), but this team will be a lot better if Fox can find somebody else to help him.  Fellow senior Nemi Djurisic figures to start, and while he's plenty useful as a guy who can hit threes and stretch the defense (43.2 percent from three last year), his defense leaves quite a bit to be desired.

One option would be to play Djurisic at the three and start freshman Yante Maten at the four.  Maten, who was Michigan's high school basketball player of the year (impressively, Georgia managed to beat out Michigan State and Indiana for him), comes in fairly polished for a young big man.  Fox also has Houston Kessler, who played sparingly last year as a redshirt freshman, and Osahen Iduwe, a Nigerian import who's likely to be all potential at this point.

If Fox decides to play Djurisic down low, he has a couple of athletic wings at his disposal.  Cameron Forte, who averaged 22.5 ppg and 7.5 rpg as a freshman at Howard JC before transferring to Georgia last year, didn't play big minutes but could see more time with Morris gone.  Kenny Paul Geno is another athletic wing who can get to the rim at 6'6", but saw even less playing time as a freshman (3.8 mpg in 21 games.)  Either one could be important to Georgia's success; while Morris was by no means a great player, replacing his contributions probably isn't going to be easy.

Georgia did feature one of the better backcourts in the league last season with Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines.  Mann excels at getting to the basket and drawing contact, finishing second in the SEC (behind Julius Randle) in free throw attempts, while Gaines shot well from the outside (37.5 percent on threes.)  But although both were sophomores last year, both also looked like they were pretty close to maxing out their potential: yeah, Mann could stand to cut down on his turnovers and improve his jump shot, but you didn't get the sense that these were guys who were just scratching the surface of their potential.  Mann in particular struggled against teams like Kentucky and Florida that featured more athletic guards.

Backing up Mann and Gaines will be J.J. Frazier and Juwan Parker, the latter of whom struggled mightily with his shooting as a freshman.  Parker improving on the 19 percent he shot from three (not a misprint) would take the Bulldogs a long way, while at this point Frazier's job is to give Mann a breather when he needs one.

Schedule

Non-Conference
11/6 Georgia Southwestern (exh.)
11/14 at Georgia Tech
11/18 Stony Brook
11/21 Troy
11/23 Florida Atlantic
11/26 vs. Gonzaga
11/28 NIT Season Tip-Off
12/2 at Chattanooga
12/7 Colorado
12/21 Seton Hall
12/27 Mercer
12/31 at Kansas State
1/3 Norfolk State
Conference Home-and-Home

Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Kentucky, Auburn

Conference Home

Arkansas, Florida, Tennessee, Missouri

Conference Road

LSU, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Alabama

The non-conference schedule has a handful games against power conference teams, but several of them (Georgia Tech, Seton Hall, Minnesota or St. John's in the NIT Season Tip-Off) don't figure to be NCAA teams.  On the other hand, Gonzaga, Colorado, and Kansas State are decent tests.  The rest of the non-conference schedule isn't really worth mentioning; even Mercer figures to be in a rebuilding year.  Georgia could easily go into SEC play at something like 10-2, but the strength of schedule probably won't be good enough to cover the Bulldogs if they get off to a slow start.

The SEC schedule could be tough if Ole Miss, South Carolina, and Auburn do better than expected -- or it could be relatively soft.  Kentucky is on the schedule twice, though, and the Bulldogs do get shots at Florida and Arkansas on their home floor.  Basically, between this and the middling non-conference schedule, Georgia has relatively few opportunities for big wins to impress the Selection Committee (unless I'm seriously underestimating some teams on the non-conference slate), so the Bulldogs are probably just going to need to pile up a lot of wins.

Outlook

While normally, you would look at a team that just finished in a tie for second in the SEC and returns 71 percent of its minutes and think that this team is going to be really good, in this case there are a couple of reasons for skepticism.

For one, Georgia last year wasn't that good: better than expected, to be sure, but nobody seriously believed they were the second- or third-best team in the SEC.  For another, maybe I'm putting too much stock in how Georgia's players were rated as recruits, but last year's Georgia team looked like a team that was pretty close to maxing out its potential.  You didn't watch Georgia last season and think, wow, these guys are just scratching the surface of their potential.  You watched Georgia last season and thought, wow, how are we losing to this team?

Against the three NCAA Tournament teams from the conference last year, Georgia went 0-4 and lost those four games by an average of 19.5 points.  Basically, the Bulldogs couldn't hang with the few truly good teams in the SEC last year; Fox's coaching was good enough to get Georgia past the rest of the conference but got swamped by teams with better athletes.  All of this suggests that while Georgia probably won't fall off the face of the earth, their potential heading into this season is a bit limited.  An eighth- or ninth-place finish would be less surprising than a second-place finish.

Or, I could be horribly wrong.  After all, everybody was horribly wrong about this team last year, and much of that had to do with underestimating players like Kenny Gaines and Charles Mann.  Mark Fox may not have a roster full of McDonald's All-Americans, but last year's team showed that he knows how to get the most out of the talent he has.  Is it enough to get into the NCAA Tournament?  It could be.