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Is Georgia The Most Underachieving Basketball Program In The Country?

Despite the fact that it is the flagship school for a state that produced a bevy of top players, UGA is watching the Big Dance from the sidelines. Sadly, this is a common occurrence.

February 25, 2012; Athens, GA, USA; Georgia Bulldogs fans shown during the game against the Florida Gators   during the second half at Stegeman Coliseum. Georgia defeated Florida 76-62. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-US PRESSWIRE
February 25, 2012; Athens, GA, USA; Georgia Bulldogs fans shown during the game against the Florida Gators during the second half at Stegeman Coliseum. Georgia defeated Florida 76-62. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-US PRESSWIRE

This has been a bad season for college basketball in the State of Georgia. Georgia and Georgia Tech both finished 11th in their 12-team conferences. Their combined records were 26-37. If you prefer computer ratings, Ken Pomeroy’s ratings placed both the Dawgs and Jackets outside of the top 100 teams in the country. KenPom’s state championship went to Georgia State, as the Panthers finished 69th in the rankings. In fact, a Georgia team has not finished in the top 25 of Pomeroy’s ratings since 2007, when Georgia Tech finished 17th. A Georgia team hasn’t received a seed of four or higher since the Jackets made the NCAA Title Game as a No. 4 seed in 2004, way back when Paul Hewitt was our great hope.

The lack of success of the local college basketball teams is usually jarring when Selection Sunday comes around and the Jackets and Dawgs aren’t even on the bubble, but the point was driven home especially hard this year by the big story of the week in the NBA. Dwight Howard, a product of Atlanta, was busy vacillating as to whether he would stay in Orlando or head parts unknown. On a lesser scale, the local NBA story has been the report that Josh Smith wants to be traded and whether the Hawks would honor his rumored request. Smith, like Howard, is a native of Atlanta. The Howard and Smith stories were a reminder that the Peach State produces plenty of basketball talent. This is either a hopeful or depressing thought as the local basketball teams founder.

In fact, the contrast between the talent produced in the state and the results produced by the two major state schools leads to an uncomfortable question: are Georgia and Georgia Tech the most underachieving college basketball programs in the country? The two programs share a state full of great players, but they do so little with those players.

This is an especially big issue for Georgia because UGA is the state's flagship school. It has more fans and more money than Georgia Tech, not to mention a better media profile and a little more latitude in terms of the academic requirements for its players. It's true that basketball is an urban sport, and therefore Georgia Tech has one recruiting advantage in that it can sell: "would you like to live in Black Hollywood?" That said, Athens is only an hour away on 316 or 78, so UGA's is close to the state's population center. Georgia doesn't face the issue that, for example, the University of Tennessee faces where Knoxville is almost 400 miles from Memphis, the city that produces the most basketball talent in the state.

To properly analyze this question, we need to look first at the talent available. Thanks to the Rivals database, we can look at ten years of recruiting rankings, starting with the class that will matriculate in the coming fall and going back to the class that matriculated in 2003. Rivals gives five-star ratings to between 25 and 30 players annually. Here are the state rankings for five-star players produced in the past decade:

California 23
Texas 23
Florida 16
Georgia 16
North Carolina 14
Indiana 12
New Jersey 12
New York 12
Tennessee 11
Alabama 10
Maryland 10
Ohio 10
Nevada* 9
Virginia 9
Illinois 8
Washington 7
Massachusetts 6
Mississippi 6
Louisiana 5
Michigan 5
Oklahoma 5
Pennsylvania** 5
Missouri 4
Oregon 4
Kentucky 3
New Hampshire 3
Wisconsin 3
Connecticut 2
Minnesota 2
West Virginia 2
Alaska 1
Arizona 1
Iowa 1
Kansas 1
Rhode Island 1
South Carolina 1
South Dakota 1

* - Some states have deceptively high totals because of the presence of one or more prep schools in the state. Nevada is the most prominent of those states. It's unfair to assume that UNLV would have dibs on players who only spend a year or two playing nearby.

** - I thought that Penn State would be high on the list for underachieving programs, but it turns out that the Keystone State doesn't produce much in the way of basketball talent, at least according to Rivals.

There you go. Georgia, the ninth most populous state in the country, is tied with Florida for third place in terms of production of five-star players over the past decade, but whereas Florida has turned that talent into a pair of national titles and status as a regular Tournament participant, Georgia is still wandering in the basketball wilderness. It's true that Florida didn't win its national titles on local five-star talent. The nucleus of the Gators' national title teams was Al Horford, a four-star player from Michigan, Corey Brewer, a four-star player from Tennessee, Joakim Noah, a four-star player from New York, and Taurean Green, a three-star player from Florida. However, that run then allowed Florida to lock up four in-state five star players in the next four recruiting classes. In contrast, Georgia has signed only two of 16 in-state five star players: Louis Williams, who went straight to the NBA, and Mike Mercer, who last for a season and a half before getting booted.

Additionally, five-star talent acts as a proxy for talent in a state overall. There's no reason to think that a state would produce a lot of five-star players, but wouldn't also produce great depth in terms of useful four- and three-star players behind them. The chart above leads to the conclusion that Georgia and Florida produce a lot of basketball talent, but the flagship school of the Sunshine State has produced 17 trips to the Tournament, 11 appearances in the final AP poll, seven regular season SEC titles, four trips to the Final Four, and the aforementioned pair of national titles. The flagship school of the Peach State pales in comparison, having produced 11 trips to the Tournament, five appearances in the final AP poll, three regular season SEC titles, and a sole visit to the Final Four in 1983 led by Vern Fleming. Heck, Vandy has been in the final poll eleven times and has made 13 trips to the Tournament. What excuse does Georgia have to be significantly behind the Commodores in a revenue sport? (A note: switch Georgia's flagship program to the Flats and you do not do much better, as the Jackets have produced 16 trips to the Tournament, eight appearances in the final AP poll, three regular season conference titles, and two trips to the Final Four.*)

* - These numbers come from the invaluable College Basketball Reference site, which allows a user to sort schools by a number of different categories. This seems like as good a point as any to acknowledge that I am using recruiting numbers from the last ten years to judge programs over roughly a century of results. Lacking a recruiting database that predates the Great Depression, this is just going to have to be a fly in the ointment. I would like to assume that the geographic distribution of talent has remained relatively stable, but with population shifts in the country, not to mention the fact that a number of schools refused to recruit African-Americans for decades, this assumption just doesn't work.

So who are the other contenders for most underachieving program? Here are a few:

  • Texas - while Texas and California are tied for having the most talent over the past ten years, California has UCLA, the program with the most national titles, while Texas has ... Texas Western's famous 1966 national title. Seriously, that's it. The second-most populous state in the country, one that produces all sorts of basketball talent, has all of one national title, and that was won by one of the smaller schools in the state. UT has done well in terms of Tournament appearances and conference titles, the latter mainly because of its dominance of the SWC, and 11 appearances in the final AP poll isn't terrible, but three Final Fours? Two fewer trips to college basketball's signature event than Houston? For shame!
  • Rutgers - New Jersey is undeniably talent-rich and its flagship school is close to New York City, which also has a bevy of good players. With those natural advantages, Rutgers has produced a grand total of six trips to the Tournament and two appearances in the final AP poll. The discomfort that many at the school have with major college sports has to be the explanation here. (And if you're thinking that Seton Hall is really the biggie in New Jersey, the Pirates only have nine Tournament appearances and six instances of being in the final AP poll. Outside of P.J. Carlesimo, Seton Hall does not have much to speak of.)
  • Alabama - the Tide have done much better than Georgia in most respects, as they can claim 20 Tournament appearances, 15 instances of being ranked in the final AP poll, and ten SEC regular season titles. This is just the point at which I mention that Bama has never made a Final Four. They bear that cross that Maryland bore until Gary Williams finally broke through in 2001 with the Steve Blake-Juan Dixon-Lonny Baxter team. That said, Bama shouldn't be in this discussion.
  • Virginia - take away the two Final Fours of the Ralph Sampson-Othell Wilson-Olden Polynice era and you have a whole lot of nothing. Still, UVA is ahead of Georgia in every meaningful category, so they aren't in the picture, either.
  • Northwestern - they sit in a great city and a talent-rich area, they compete in a sport where smaller, academically prestigious schools like Duke, Wake Forest, Vandy, and Stanford have all experienced varying degrees of success, and they have never been to the Tournament. Georgia fans, here is salvation.

The silver lining to this entire exercise is that Georgia fans can still hope. Because their program is sitting on a goldmine of talent, the past represents wasted potential, but the future has promise. To paraphrase Tony Montana, with the right coach, the Dawgs could go right to the top. That is, unless there is a structural reason that causes Georgia to consistently miss out on local talent...

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.