UGA basketball’s future, Gurley vs. Herschel and Junkyard Mail!

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Coach Mark Fox draws a play for Kenny Gaines and Charles Mann, both of whom will be back next year. (John Kelley / UGA)
Coach Mark Fox draws a play for Kenny Gaines and Charles Mann, both of whom will be back next year. (John Kelley / UGA)

Coach Mark Fox draws a play for Kenny Gaines and Charles Mann, both of whom will be back next year. (John Kelley / UGA)

Mark Fox’s Georgia Bulldogs may have been a disappointing one-and-done again this year in the NCAA tournament, just like 2011, but the big difference this time is that the future looks a lot brighter. You don’t have to be blindly optimistic to see this program returning to the Big Dance next year.

Despite the naysayers dismissing him as unable to recruit a big name to help lift UGA’s men’s basketball program out of the middle of the conference, Fox quietly put together a pretty good outfit this season, despite losing starter Brandon Morris to dismissal before the season and then having to keep juggling his first five amid an incredible streak of injuries.

And yet Georgia reached the 20-win mark for a second consecutive year and finally made it back to the NCAAs.

After Friday’s final game of the season, Fox finally allowed himself to ponder just how good this team could have been had everyone stayed healthy. The healthy team I saw pound Seton Hall back in December was capable of beating anyone. If they hadn’t been hobbled, it’s a safe bet they’d have come into the tournament better than a 10-seed and would still be playing.

Yes, against Michigan State, the Dawgs were plagued by the same deficiencies they’d battled off and on all season in addition to the injuries: streaky shooting that too often went completely cold for minutes at a time, inconsistent free-throw shooting, turnovers and a hard time handling the fast break on defense. And yet the Dawgs still came tantalizingly close to pulling out a win.

Opposing coach Tom Izzo wasn’t just playing nice when he said after Friday’s game that the Dawgs were as good a team as the Spartans had faced this year.

Yante Maten stands a good chance of becoming a starter next season. (John Kelley / UGA)

Yante Maten stands a good chance of becoming a starter next season. (John Kelley / UGA)

Looking ahead, Fox’s 2015-16 team definitely will miss departing seniors Marcus Thornton and Nemi Djurisic, but, unlike 2011, when he lost his two best players to the NBA, Fox should have the foundation of another good team, with returnees including  Kenny Gaines, Charles Mann, J.J. Frazier, Juwan Parker, Yante Maten, Kenny Paul Geno, Cameron Forte and Houston Kessler, as well as promising incoming freshmen in Turtle Jackson, E’Torrion Wilridge and Derek Ogbeide.

And there’s still one scholarship open.

If the Dawgs can avoid another spate of injuries, next year’s team ought to be as good as, if not better, than this year’s when it was healthy. Add to that a 16 percent increase in attendance at the Steg this season and the stability of Fox having signed a two-year contract extension, and this definitely looks like a program on the rise.

Sure, it’d be great to land a big-name player, but since those guys tend not to stick around more than a year or two, I think building more long-term depth on the bench is of greater importance.

So, what should the immediate goals next year be for Fox’s Hounds? Well, a big one, naturally, is making the NCAA tournament again, but in order to keep the program moving forward Georgia needs to advance beyond the first round next time.

Oh, and no more of this losing to Georgia Tech business. The one really black mark on this year’s basketball resume was losing for the fourth year in a row to Brian Gregory’s Jackets, especially since this year’s Tech team was absolutely execrable.

That’s just not going to be acceptable any more.

Meanwhile, if you missed it amid all the March Madness this week, the Blawg has an interesting fan discussion of where Todd Gurley should rank among the all-time Georiga greats at running back. You can read it here. Of course, it’s a given in most fans’ view that Herschel Walker is atop that list, but let’s open this week’s Junkyard Mail with a reader comment that questions that belief …

KBP writes: As a Dawg fan I love Herschel, but tell me what skill did he have that was clearly better than Todd’s? Herschel was faster and stronger but those are not skills. Herschel was a straight line runner with tremendous speed and power but no agility and no vision. Lateral movement was not his strength as I don’t remember Herschel ever cutting back across the field in college or pro’s. Walker’s career numbers are unbelievable and it will be hard for any back to beat those unless he is a 4 year starter. Just look at the number of carries Walker had. Walker was the most productive, but Gurley has more skill and so did [Garrison] Hearst, [Rodney] Hampton and [Knowshon] Moreno.

Once Herschel Walker took off, no one was going to catch him. (University of Georgia)

Once Herschel Walker took off, no one was going to catch him. (University of Georgia)

I’m going to have to disagree with you on that, KBP. While it’s true Herschel was mostly a north-south runner, to me that’s a plus rather than a minus. He didn’t waste a lot of time or energy going horizontal, as too many of Georgia’s still-great later backs have sometimes done. Plus, he had such a tremendous burst of speed once he reached the line that it really wasn’t necessary for him to do a lot of cutting. And, unlike the backs you named, I don’t remember Walker ever getting caught from behind. When he shifted gears after breaking through the line, he generally was going all the way.

Herschel also was easily the most powerful back I’ve ever seen — capable of bowling lover defenders who otherwise would have been in good position to make a tackle.

And, as he proved in the national championship game when he returned to the field after dislocating a shoulder, nobody was more resilient.

I will say that, had Gurley played four years without missing any time, he likely would have caught and passed Herschel in several categories, including career yardage. But, as you noted, nobody’s going to do it in just three seasons, and top-notch backs rarely stick around for their senior year any more. So I think Herschel’s position at the top is secure.

Keith Marshall is practicing this spring with no limitations, Mark Richt says. (John Kelley / UGA)

Keith Marshall is practicing this spring with no limitations, Mark Richt says. (John Kelley / UGA)

Speaking of running backs, Terry Dawg writes: Bill, what do you think the chances are that Keith Marshall will finally be able to get back to playing at the level of his freshman year? He gave the Dawgs a terrific one-two punch with Todd Gurley but last year, even when he wasn’t hurt, he never approached looking like the same back.

Generally, it takes more than a year to fully come back from ACL surgery and rehab, so I wasn’t surprised early last season that Marshall looked a bit tentative. After he got hurt again, I think the coaching staff was wise keeping him out and letting him have time to really get well. The word out of bowl practices was that he finally seemed to be full speed, and this past week, after Georgia started spring practice, Mark Richt said, “Marshall is in a situation of no limitations and I think he is getting back in playing shape.” The talk from his cohorts in the tailback corps was encouraging, too. Sony Michel said Marshall is “100 percent, going full speed. He was moving fast, moving good.” And Nick Chubb pronounced, “He’s back. Keith Marshall is back, and I’m excited about that. I look forward to Keith having a great year.” If they’re right, the threesome of Chubb, Michel and Marshall would give Georgia probably the most formidable running attack in the country.

EJ writes: Bill, I enjoy your Blawg. I am writing to comment on Tramel Terry. This guy is a special talent. After rehabbing he was very hard to cover while on the scout team. It is a shame for him to sit on the bench with the defense with his talent as a wide receiver. Any comments on this?

Tramel Terry had his best day of the 2014 season against Troy. (Philip Williams / UGA)

Tramel Terry had his best day of the 2014 season against Troy. (Philip Williams / UGA)

Although the four-star recruit out of Goose Creek, S.C., who was Mr. Football South Carolina of 2012, initially signed with Georgia as a receiver, after taking a redshirt year to recover from an ACL tear in a high school all-star game, the decision ultimately was made that he should be playing safety. So far, that doesn’t appear to be changing. The transition to defense wasn’t easy for him, and Richt said about Terry last season that it takes a while for a player coming back from ACL rehab to regain their confidence, but the redshirt sophomore made his UGA debut last season against Troy, making three tackles and snaring an interception. Although he didn’t attract much attention after that, he actually played in 10 games, sometimes at cornerback, and finished the year with six tackles and that one pick. He has good hands, but it’s taken a while for him to develop his tackling and coverage skills. If he wants to avoid spending his UGA career buried on the depth chart, this spring would be a good time for Terry to show Jeremy Pruitt what he can do.

Got something you want to discuss concerning UGA athletics? Or a question for the Junkyard Blawg? Email

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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg

Junkyard Blawg mugBill King is an Athens native and a graduate of the University of Georgia’s Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. A lifelong Bulldogs fan, he sold programs at Sanford Stadium as a teen and has been a football season ticket holder since leaving school. He has worked at the AJC since college and spent 10 years as the Constitution’s rock music critic before moving into copy editing on the old afternoon Journal. In addition to blogging, he’s now a story editor.

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