'Show up': The approach and uniqueness to launching the Lady Bulldogs’ season

Georgia tipped off practices ahead of the 2020 campaign. How can it start the quest toward elevated play and a tournament return?

Georgia guard Que Morrison (23) during the Bulldogs’ practice session in Athens, Ga., on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. (Photo by Tony Walsh)

ATHENS, Ga. — Last Thursday, the players didn’t have a choice in the locker room music playlist. Joni Taylor took over. Georgia officially tipped its preseason practice period, and the sixth-year head coach had the giddiness of her playing days return. Taylor wanted to soak in the moment, so a mix of ‘90s R&B music blared over the speakers.

Save the modern hip-hop, rap or pop for another day. The Lady Bulldogs were going to enjoy a throwback day. Although not maybe to the extent of Taylor breaking a sweat while dancing to her jams.

The mix of tunes featured a variety of artists on a video called “Pass the Mic, Vol. 3,” and Taylor savored each moment. As the 36-minute clip ended, Boyz II Men played “End of the Road” and Taylor got emotional. She saw the connection between the song and the numerous events endured over recent months around Covid-19 and social injustices. Nonetheless, the music choice made her mind rewind. A start to practice is nothing new, but it brought special feelings to Taylor and the memories of 1997-2001 returned.

“You couldn't sleep the night before,” she said while reminiscing. “You put on your new shoes. You greased your feet up to make sure you didn't get blisters, because it was going to be different. They don't know what that's like. It still gives us old heads some excitement.”

Aside from a few tweaks, the preseason launch won’t feel vastly different for Georgia. The new-look and socially-distant routine has been in full swing for a few weeks. An actual tip-off can occur by Nov. 25, but this practice period becomes crucial for the Lady Bulldogs. It’s a new start, in essence, and an opportunity for the program to elevate itself a level higher.

There’s a new level of confidence for Georgia to reach its annual goal: reach the NCAA tournament and make a run. Those aspirations begin on the practice floor, and the Lady Bulldogs can use the next month to find its identity and build upon a foundation.

“We want to get back to Georgia basketball,” senior point guard Gabby Connally said. “We want to do as well as we can for each other.”

The build up

Georgia guard Gabby Connally (2) during the Lady Bulldogs’ strength and conditioning on Sept. 17, 2020. (Photo by Chamberlain Smith)

As each Georgia player endured the pandemic shutdown, Taylor started a group message. The team communicates announcements and reminders through an application called TeamWorx, but this interaction had more intimacy and purpose. Taylor hadn’t done it much in the past, but felt a need with being distanced from each other.

She had some objectives with it, too: Allow the players to see another side of their head coach, share motivational quotes or videos and … well … monitoring when her student-athletes were waking up.

“We were craving that contact,” Taylor said. “Most of it was talking trash. I would send a workout and say 'I don't know what you're doing, but this is what I just did.’”

Taylor couldn’t force a player to workout or require any response to her playful jabs. But the players responded with their own plans to stay in shape, and the dialogue became a favorite part of each passing day. The offseason workouts looked different for each player — some had trainers, others found ways to get into a gymnasium or ran outside. Forward Jenna Staiti worked with former SEC great Carla McGhee on parking spaces that became asphalt courts (for a rather unique extreme) at a public park in Forsyth County.

“They all looked like they were in remarkably good shape and healthy,” Taylor said. “I was very proud of the work on their own, not only physically but they showed up in a great mental space as well.”

The Lady Bulldogs returned to campus on June 22. Even then, it seemed like a far cry from normalcy.

A four-week ramp-up period kicked it off — along with coronavirus testing, where Taylor said the players remained healthy. All of Georgia’s work happened in the weight room. The coaches couldn’t watch or instruct. Joshua Rucci, the team’s strength-and-conditioning coordinator, had to manage the intensity of workouts. Players began by performing 50% of their normal routine. It increased each week: 70%, 80% and finally 90% of the usual workouts were executed before a return to on-court instruction.

Once the coaches had access to their team again, it still took time. Due to safety guidelines and NCAA rules, Georgia started with three players on each side of the court. They could convene into groups of seven, then the entire team joined together once the academic term began in August. Georgia implemented defense into its plan over the last two weeks.

At last, while precautions are a focal point, a routine returned.

“Everyone looks great when there's no defense on it. Once we did, the ball was flying around the gym,” Taylor said of adding defense. “We expected that, given how fast we played and that defense hadn't been run since March. I'm really excited to see how that comes together.”

The mantra

Ninety percent of Georgia’s scoring returns in 2020. The core of its team — Connally, Staiti, Maya Caldwell and Que Morrison — all return as graduate students and want to lead the Lady Bulldogs in their last ride as a college basketball player.

Their plan is to rewrite the script of recent seasons.

The Lady Bulldogs’ upperclassmen are aware of the program’s rich history. They see it before taking two steps into the Stegeman Coliseum Practice Facility. The team offices are decked out with rings, Olympic medals and a legacy of success. Georgia sometimes sees it walking through the hallways, too, when Andy Landers and his 944 career wins make a visit.

Not much of that on-court success is recent, though. Georgia hosted the NCAA tournament in 2018, but it hasn’t returned since. The program hadn’t missed consecutive Big Dances (Disclaimer: The 2020 NCAA tournament was canceled and Georgia found itself on the bubble) in program history.

Now, there’s little choice.

“We need to show up stronger, better and faster,” Taylor said, announcing the team’s yearly theme that extends into community outreach and fighting for social justice. “Two years ago, we were the youngest team in the SEC and one of the youngest in the country. All of those ladies are seniors now. We have returned heavy leadership and heavy experience. It's time.”

Georgia has valued the lesson of not taking its previous experiences for granted. The team found itself on a roll by the beginning of March when Covid-19 brought the sports world to a screeching halt. Georgia won five of its last seven games, nearly reached its potential and was ready to accept a postseason berth whether it be the Women’s National Invitation Tournament (WNIT) or NCAA tournament.

The lost games and the chance at another opportunity during a pandemic will be held with value. It brings a deeper importance to what lies ahead

“It's about doing what's asked of us and more,” Connally said. “It'll come by doing the little things in practice over and over again. It's important to give our best effort and show up with the right attitude. We need to listen to our teammates if we aren't doing something right. Great programs not only have coaches who lead, but players who lead.”

Over the past two seasons, Georgia has finished 16-16 in SEC play. Those seasons told a similar tale — a slow start (including a few non-conference losses) followed by a run toward the end after tournament hopes have almost completely dissipated. Most of the losses over the past seasons have mirrored each other, too. One bad quarter has a history of dooming the Lady Bulldogs and leading to defeat.

Taylor understands and agrees with the assessment of starts and finishes. In past seasons, Georgia has focused on building up toward a peak near the end of the season. That’ll remain the same in some ways, because that’s an objective for most basketball programs. But this season, there’s a twist.

Georgia needs to “show up,” but with a high frequency. That’ll be its ticket to another tier of success this season.

“It’s consistency and being stronger,” Taylor said. “We’ve talked about that more with these upperclassmen rather than how we start and finish. If we’re consistent, those things will take care of themselves.”

The application of goals

Georgia head coach Joni Taylor during the Bulldogs’ practice session in Athens, Ga., on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020. (Photo by Tony Walsh)

The film room has become a best friend to Taylor and her players over recent months. Georgia had time to take a deep dive into last season’s deficiencies and find unique ways to improve upon them.

After some studying, efficiency became a focus and area of need. It turns out that the NCAA has pivoted to a new metric to measure team performance and seed teams for the tournament. The old-school, conventional system of Rating Percentage Index (RPI) has been replaced by the snazzy trend of the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET). The NET is a two-factor system which puts a focus on strength of opponents, wins and losses, location of game and efficiency, of course.

An algorithm exists to measure consistency, but it’s hard for coaches across basketball to pinpoint exactly what it entails. Georgia chose to try a few different things to improve upon its metrics, both offensively and defensively.

The offense has become a focal point, and Taylor has implemented a revamped system. It’s a lot to unpack in terms of what it features, but the gist of it involves fast-paced play. Georgia already favored running in transition, but think of amplifying it even more.

Ultra fast. As fast as trying to shoot in 15 seconds.

Georgia believes it has the roster to answer the challenge, too. Taylor praised her seniors, sees progression from her sophomore class and welcomes two freshmen into the fold. Georgia’s newcomers, Zoesha Smith and Sarah Ashlee Barker (who they call S.A.), have favorable qualities that could lead to early playing time. Taylor said Smith’s athleticism is “Caliya Robinson-like” and that Barker is a big guard with a championship mentality.

Georgia will feature a 13-deep roster after Kaila Hubbard opted out and Shaniya Jones was dismissed for a violation of multiple team rules. With the active roster, Taylor anticipates the talent translating into more points.

“We're putting more firepower on the floor than what we've had in quite a while,” Taylor said.

There’s a plan for a quicker offense, but Taylor understands the give-and-take of more possessions. Obviously, it’ll give more chances to the opponent, but the Lady Bulldogs aren’t turning away from their defensive backbone. It has been Georgia’s core philosophy and Taylor realized a few ways to improve it.

Some of the focuses, which will be further emphasized as practice continues, are paint touches and 3-point shots. Georgia allowed teams to shoot around 40-or-50% in games it lost last season. Taylor said it’ll be imperative for the Lady Bulldogs to allow fewer baskets around the perimeter and opportunities inside.

Georgia allowed 63 points per game at a 39.5% clip through the 2019-20 campaign.

“Even though it was still really good,” Taylor said. “There were some things that we had some slippage in terms of how we defended the ball.”

The numerous focal points, tweaks in approach and new methods in practice are how Georgia plans to apply its goals. It’s the same message of Georgia basketball to its core, but Taylor found a few fresh ways to convey it. The season aspirations remain the same, but it starts with a month-long grind on the practice court.

“We’re really excited, because there was some uncertainty,” Connally said. “We want to make a deep run in the tournament. That has always been our goal. It starts with giving everything we have.”

Many things ahead of the 2020 season have been different. Georgia can now feel some semblance of what it is used to, and the quest toward the program’s days of tournament berths and deep runs is revived.

A true version of Georgia basketball wants to come back. But it will return with a different look.

“I’m so confident in each and every one of (my teammates). It could be anyone’s day,” Staiti said. “We all have the same goal, so that makes it pretty easy.”

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