Georgia’s Path to Win the SEC

How a dominant defense can lead the Bulldogs to an improbable title

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The SEC has six teams ranked in the AP Top 25 this week. Georgia is not one of them. The Bulldogs, at 10-1, sit just outside at No. 27. But you read the title correctly. Joni Taylor’s squad has a legitimate path to an SEC championship.

For some background on why this matters, one has to turn back the clock a few years. Georgia has a rich program history going back to the days of legendary head coach Andy Landers. Under Landers, the Bulldogs made the first ten NCAA Tournaments, and 31 of the first 33. Landers won 862 games in his 36 years at the helm and took the team to 20 Sweet Sixteens and five Final Fours before his retirement in 2015. Georgia is no stranger to women’s basketball success.

Recent years have not been as kind to Georgia fans, however. The Bulldogs have missed more NCAA Tournaments in the last six years (three) than in the previous 33 years combined, and you have to go back over two decades for the team’s last SEC regular season title, which came in 2000.

Not much was expected to be different this season. At least, the league’s coaches didn’t think so. After finishing in ninth place last year, Georgia was picked to finish ninth again in the Preseason Coaches Poll. But despite all five starters graduating last school year, four of them had a year of eligibility remaining — Que Morrison, Gabby Connally, Jenna Staiti, and Maya Caldwell. All four came back. Between that experience and the additions of top-100 recruit Sarah Ashlee Barker and UConn transfer Mikayla Coombs, the Bulldogs are cooking. And they might just have enough to hang a banner in a league loaded at the top.

How they’re winning

Any discussion about Georgia’s on-court performance has to start on the defensive end. Taylor’s crew currently sits in the top 10 in Division I in opponent points per possession on the strength of, well, pretty much everything. A look at the Bulldogs’ statistical profile reveals no significant defensive weaknesses. They rank in the top 10% in defensive rebounding rate and defensive effective field goal percentage and the top 20% in defensive turnover rate and foul rate, which together cover just about everything that happens on a basketball court.

Has their schedule helped? Maybe a little. But, in addition to being three games into an SEC slate that’s included No. 14 Mississippi State already, Georgia also faced Oklahoma and went to Georgia Tech early in the season. Oklahoma is the only team to reach the 70-point mark on Georgia (in a 93-80 Bulldog win), but it also took the Sooners 83 possessions to get there in one of the 50 fastest games of the season so far.

Simply put: Georgia can lock down. Being elite in both defensive rebounding and forcing turnovers is incredibly difficult — forcing turnovers generally requires being between your player and the ball while the ideal defensive rebounding position is in between your player and the hoop. It’s why IUPUI, Baylor, and Illinois State are the only other teams in the top 40 in both defensive rebounding rate and defensive turnover rate. You just can’t be in two places at once.

But a well-coached team that plays hard and plays connected can almost make it seem like its players are in two places at once. With those four graduate seniors, the Bulldogs have a rare chemistry. They know the game plan and they execute it.

So what is that game plan? To funnel the ball to the 6-foot-4 Staiti and let her do the rest. Staiti has blocked 13.6% of opponent two-point attempts while she’s been on the court this year, good for 7th in the nation. Having a premier rim protector behind the guards gives them more freedom to deny one pass away, forcing ball handlers to go one-on-one. If the ball handler’s defender gets beat, Staiti has their back. This allows Georgia to deny passing lanes and dribble handoffs, creating more turnovers. Morrison, Connally, Coombs, Caldwell, and Barker are all in the top 20% of the country in steal rate, and Georgia’s opponents are assisting on just 43.5% of their made baskets (17th in the nation).

This possession against Florida on Sunday demonstrates the one-on-one nature of Georgia’s defense and how Staiti helps her guards force takeaways by merely existing. Early on, Barker denies the wing pass to Florida’s Kristina Moore. Moore eventually gets the ball on a handoff, but then her passing options are taken away by Coombs (left wing) and Morrison (right wing), so she’s forced to take Barker off the bounce. Barker does a good job to stay in front, but even if she hadn’t, Staiti was ready to contest a potential layup attempt. Moore instead tries to force a cross-court pass, which Jordan Isaacs promptly picks off and turns into a beautiful transition sequence. (While we’re at it, how nice was that pass from Morrison?)

Staiti’s top-50 defensive rebounding rate of 27.4% is a big reason why Georgia has been so successful at limiting second chances as well — that’s more than a quarter of opponent misses that she rebounds while she’s on the floor. Even when the guards take themselves out of rebounding position by denying, Staiti is able to clean the glass.

Her presence in the paint doesn’t just make life difficult for opponents at the rim, though. Because Staiti awaits any opposing guard who beats their defender off the dribble, Georgia’s guards are able to play tight and take away the three. According to CBB Analytics, Bulldog opponents are taking just 44.7% of their shots from three or at the rim, more than 10 percentage points below league average (56.1%). Taylor has her team forcing more midrange attempts than all but the Mississippi schools in the SEC.

Georgia opponents are taking a below average percentage of their shots from the most efficient spots on the floor — the arc and the rim — and settling for a lot of midrange jumpers. (Shot chart via CBB Analytics)

Why they might have enough

Georgia’s road to an SEC title is still a bit of a long shot, and there are plenty of obstacles along the way. There’s an argument to be made for the SEC as the deepest league in the country, and it’s unquestionably one of the top three. ESPN bracketologist Charlie Creme has been putting together 64-team, 48-team, and 16-team bracket projections this year due to the uncertainty of COVID-19, and the SEC leads his latest 48-team bracket with eight teams in the field.

With all the usual caveats of looking ahead during a pandemic, however, the schedule favors Georgia going forward. A lot depends on if and when the postponed game against South Carolina takes place of course, but currently the Bulldogs have just three remaining games scheduled against the five AP top-20 teams in the league. And two of the three teams Georgia gets twice this year are Auburn and Florida, the two teams currently at the bottom of the standings.

The Ken Massey ratings have the Bulldogs in the top 20, and the NCAA’s most recent NET release on January 11 had them in the top 15. Given that two of those three remaining games against AP top-20 teams are at home, the only games in which Georgia will be definitive underdogs will be at Texas A&M on January 31 and at Tennessee tonight. A loss to the Lady Vols might shut the door on any SEC title hopes, but a win could start to make things interesting.

Georgia certainly isn’t the favorite in the SEC — that’s still South Carolina’s title to lose. With all the talent at the top of the league, the Bulldogs may not even end up with a double-bye in the conference tournament. But a Georgia regular season SEC championship sounds a whole lot less crazy than it did two months ago. If you haven’t been paying attention to the kids from Athens, it’s time to put some respect on their name. To the rest of the SEC, consider yourself warned.

Thanks for reading the Her Hoop Stats Newsletter. If you like our work, be sure to check out our stats site, our podcast, and our social media accounts on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram. You can also buy Her Hoop Stats gear, such as laptop stickers, mugs, and shirts!

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