5 Recommendations Are Not Enough
DawgNation’s Seth Emerson recently produced an article listing 5 things UGA needs to do under Mark Fox to improve. In short, Emerson recommends:
- Improve their early season play
- Play the highly regarded freshmen
- Shorten the rotation of players in games
- Recruit more shooters
- Win more games this season
When the casual fan reviews the list of immediate improvements Emerson recommends, those fans might agree that these 5 suggestions cover the subject completely. We here at GBB think Emerson’s list is pretty good, but seems incomplete upon close examination. Emerson’s list is long on suggestions, but short on specifics about how to achieve those goals. We have a few recommendations to add to the list.
With regard to Emerson’s first suggestion – to improve early season play – GBB would observe, “Well, sure.” The question is how to do it. We have a couple of specific things Fox needs to do. Fox seems to approach early season games as time to experiment with a multitude of combinations; yet, he will have had 25 practices, exhibition games and scrimmages to figure things out. You have to approach these early games with the same mind-set and intensity you do conference games, and that message to get across to the team.
Don’t Be a Zone Hater
Fox eschews playing zone defenses early in the year. Fox stubbornly continues to play almost exclusively man-to-man, despite the fact that many teams have not had an opportunity to iron out their zone offenses. Indeed, great shooting is rare in college hoops. Zone defenses can be useful just as a general principle. Despite Fox’s self-professed hatred of zone defenses, UGA played very effective zones the entire game against Tenn in the SEC tourney, and statistics from the first half of the UK game also show the effectiveness of zone defenses. It is very late in the year, when teams should have their zone offenses figured out, yet the zones were still effective.
A further benefit to playing zones is that it helps keep your players out of foul trouble and allows you to play fewer players, thus shortening your rotations and keeping your best players in the game. Early in the season (and all season long), Fox needs to play MTM, Zones and Presses, switching defenses all the time; this would keep opponents guessing and make them hesitate, waste clock time and think on the court. Thinking is detrimental to performance.
Change Things Up Offensively
Further, Fox frankly should overhaul his entire offensive philosophy. His schemes are too complicated for new players to pick up with ease; thus, too much of a player’s first year is wasted trying to learn the intricacies of Fox’s offensive approach. It gets back to players thinking too much. Fox’s offense requires way too much thinking early on. And his offense doesn’t encourage movement – a key to effective offense. There seems to be no rhythm or chemistry on offense much of the time. UGA often wastes shot clock time, doesn’t get open looks, ends up forcing bad shots late in the shot clock and is easy to defend. Fox’s scheme takes some guys totally out of the offense when they are on the floor and overemphasizes his stars to the detriment of the rest of the team.
In addition, the Dawgs have an enormous amount of illegal screens fouls. (Illegal screen fouls are not always the screener’s fault – the player using the screen has to set up his defender and run him into the screen. The screener has to be set.) Our offense often requires a post to run out 20-25 feet from the basket to set a screen on the ballhandler’s defender; the screen is right out in the open and is an easy call for an official with even a little bit of movement by the screener. Our posts waste way too many fouls out on the perimeter.
Also, Fox’s offense often requires big men to receive the ball at the top of the key to try to make a play. Our bigs too often turn the ball over with bad passes or walks or just hold the ball while the offense grinds to a halt. Players need to be in positions to do damage – to be a threat. If a player is not a threat, the defense doesn’t have to guard them, and UGA ends up playing 4 on 5 with the lane choked.
Scrap the half court offense and start over with something that emphasizes movement, spacing, getting everyone involved and punishing the defense on the side of the floor away from the ball – a motion offense or a simple Flex could be very effective. Alabama was running some Flex against UK in the semifinal game, for example, and it was generating good shots.
Early season games require the same kind of game planning as a conference game. SEC games are likely much easier to prepare for because you see conference teams repeatedly. These early season teams may be only seen once or twice. You must prepare as hard, if not harder, for these games, and you have to get the team mentally ready to play. UGA’s prep for Marquette and Oakland games – let alone Clemson – was insufficient. Fox should do some soul searching in this area. It may take a staff change.
Don’t Waste Your Talent
Emerson’s second suggestion is playing the freshmen early and often. We here at GBB could not agree more. Fox often values seniority over ability. He will play a less talented player experienced in his system over players with far more skill. Freshman guards Jordan Harris and Tyree Crump could have been very valuable assets all year. They did some good things but sat on the bench far too often. If either made a floor mistake or a missed shot, they were pulled from the game and likely heard about it from the coach; whereas, if an upperclassman made the same error, there was usually no penalty or verbal lambasting from Fox. Think about it from a psychological perspective – players need to play loose, reacting rather than thinking, confident rather than cowed and second-guessing themselves. The venerable Dean Smith made it a point never to pull a player after an error, and he never let a player have it in front of the crowd. Embarrassing a player, particularly a young one, is not the way to achieve peak performance. We cannot repeat this same mistake with future freshmen. Rayshaun Hammonds, for one, has to play significant minutes. He is one of most talented players Fox has recruited to UGA. Leave him in games; let him and other freshmen play through their mistakes. Don’t pull them after a missed shot or a turnover and then languish on the bench. Don’t waste their freshman season.
Gotta Keep Threats on the Floor
The third suggestion – shorten your rotations – dovetails nicely into previous discussions. There were games UGA played this season where 12 players had played within about 8 minutes of the tip. That’s just crazy! We are not deep enough to play that many players. Often, we would substitute with a nice lead and bring the starters back with a dwindled lead, a loss of momentum or a deficit. What is the purpose of playing so many players? Under Fox, UGA rarely runs, instead falling into half court sets. Also, the team rarely presses. How are 18-22 year old athletes so tired after only a couple minutes that they need to be substituted for? Fox would say he wants his players to play really hard when they are on the floor, so he wants to keep them fresh. But barring foul trouble or exhaustion, it makes no sense to have a Chinese fire drill going on the floor. Some players don’t even begin to sweat before they are pulled from the game. And all this constant in and out leads to poor chemistry on the court.
A rule of thumb is that a team should have at least 3 offensive threats on the floor at all times. If not, you become easy to defend, and you risk losing ground. There have been many times when, looking out on the floor, we might have only 1 true threat the defense has to honor. That is simply not enough. Too often, Fox makes the defense’s job easy. He can put line-ups on the floor that have no hope of scoring except by accident. That doesn’t cut it in big-time college basketball.
Don’t Be Afraid To Play Smaller and Faster
Seth Emerson’s 4th suggestion is to recruit more shooters. Again, we at GBB wholeheartedly agree. We shouldn’t be offering or pursuing perimeter players who cannot shoot the ball very well. As Emerson said, the name of the game is to outscore the opponent. The easiest way to do that is to be able to score. We have consistently under-recruited perimeter players. A couple of years ago we went 2 seasons in a row with only 4 guards, and injuries hurt us quite a bit. In the grand scheme of things, I would rather have more athletic guards and shooters than have plodding big men. It is OK to play a little smaller line-up to make sure you have shooters on the floor. Villanova and Wichita State, for example, are very effective with smaller, athletic, shooting line-ups.
UGA should play faster. Players like to play fast, and fans like to watch fast play. Uptempo play makes it easier to recruit and attracts fans to the games. It is OK to play at a faster pace, to shoot an open shot early in the shot clock, to run a fast break and a secondary break. The things that makes a team go faster are guards who can push the pace and 1 or 2 guys who rebound well, as well as a coach comfortable with and encouraging a faster paced game. One huge problem that has been consistent under Fox has been a tendency to turn the ball over; UGA doesn’t seem to value the basketball, and it doesn’t help when big men are trying to handle the ball and make plays. We turn the ball running half court offenses, which is inexcusable really. It seems smarter to put the ball in a guard’s hands, and you need probably at least 6 guards of various skillsets (and 3 PGs). Having shooters makes any offense look good.
Square Pegs in Round Holes
Another problem Fox has is trying to fit square pegs in round holes. Marcus Thornton wasted 2 years of his career trying to be a small forward, when he was actually an undersized post. Charles Mann was not a PG; he was more of a small forward, where he played much of the second half of his senior season. If Rayshaun Hammonds is truly a PF, then don’t waste time trying to put him on the perimeter as a SF. It is usually pretty evident what a player is; don’t make them try to be something they are not.
One final suggestion may be to schedule smarter – not easier just smarter. This writer is not one for scheduling easy. It is all too easy to schedule a 20 win season these days in college basketball, but get a couple of solid wins under your belt before tackling a good opponent. The NCAA will not reward scheduling easy wins in excess.
Now, we here at the GBB realize it is asking a great deal of Fox to so alter his philosophies in keeping with these recommendations. Leopard’s don’t change their spots, and coaches rarely change their fundamental philosophies, which is what we are asking of Fox. We are not so naive as to expect these recommendations to take hold, though they should. Fox’s average record is a mediocre 18-15 in his 8 seasons at UGA. That is not good enough. Even worse, UGA has found it nearly impossible to beat good teams under Fox. That has to change! Mediocrity is simply not good enough. It shouldn’t be good enough for Greg McGarity; it shouldn’t be enough for Jere Morehead; it shouldn’t be enough for fans of the University of Georgia. Change may only take place following surgery – a Foxectomy.