Yante Maten has been "Da Man" for UGA basketball. Leading the team in scoring and blocked shots, notching huge games against opponents' bigger front lines, shooting 53 percent from the floor for 19 points a game, and corralling 7 boards per outing, Maten has way out-produced expectations from when he and Osahen Iduwe were the two spring commitments in April 2014.
Maten has been so central to the way that UGA plays this season, that it is difficult to imagine Georgia having any successful offensive sets without him. But injuries happen, and for perpetually "snake-bit" UGA basketball, they come at the worst times and in the weirdest of ways. Remember back in January 2015 in the middle of the season when Maten suffered a concussion from being hit by a car?
Up to this past weekend, Georgia had somehow managed to avoid bad injuries this season. J.J. Frazier had two or three scary-looking falls, but he was able to bounce back. Georgia's heart and soul, Maten and Frazier, logged major minutes, and while J.J. has not had his best shooting year, UGA's dynamic duo kept Georgia competitive in just about all of our contests.
Well, with Maten going down with a sprained knee, suffered in the first few minutes of our last game against Kentucky, Georgia faces the daunting future of closing out the season without him.
If Yante's knee injury was a nuclear bomb dropped on the hoops hopes of UGA's 2017 basketball team, what about the near and long-term fall-out? Let's look at the Q-cubed equation.
1. Fox coaching (quality)
Although most UGA fans have their minds made up on whether Mark Fox can coach, I suppose that now we'll really see what he can do. If Fox somehow, without Maten, manages to win more than half of our remaining games, you have to figure the guy has done his best coaching this season, if not his entire 8-year Georgia career.
2. Fox coaching (quantity)
How many more years does Fox get? Is 2017 the end? Athletic Director Greg McGarity was once quoted as saying, "anything that has to be done eventually has to be done now." That phrase, or something close to it, was given as the kind of thinking that led to the Mark Richt dismissal.
Following that same logic would probably lead to Fox suffering the same fate as Richt, an end-of-season pink slip.
Can't you see the performance review? "Coach Fox, I see you gave yourself an A- on your 2017 performance self-analysis. Care to explain that?"
"Well, you see how I graduated all my guys. Sure, I have yet to win a single NCAA Tournament game in my 8 years, but everyone knows that it takes at least 15 years to turn UGA's program around. We're just beyond that half-way point, now, and you see how I graduated all my guys. Besides, we were just about to beat Kentucky when Yante got injured, and but for that freak accident, probably would have won the SEC Tournament and gone to the Big Dance."
Does the Maten injury generate any sympathy? Will it get Fox past the "just do it (now)" approach of his boss?
3. Fox coaching (quandary)
By quandary, I mean how will Fox answer the following questions? Which style gives UGA the best chance to win? Will he, looking at his personnel, finally realize that you can't micro-manage your way to basketball success in the SEC? Without Maten to feed in the post, will Fox stop the crazy substitutions, give in and play more up-tempo? Allow the talented freshman guards more minutes?
He might have to.
Fox, frustrated with the number of UGA turnovers, announced after a recent game that he might have to coach the way he did a couple of years ago-- slow the game down, and make every play call from the bench.
However, the 2017 team has no Chuck Mann, a powerfully-built point guard, who could, with the shot clock running down, drive the ball toward the rim and get fouled. I suppose that when he made the above comment, Fox had in mind playing a version of "snail-ball", such that just about every play would go through Yante. Well, now there's no Yante.
If we try snail-ball at this point, we'll probably just resort to "iso-J.J.", a game strategy that other teams will likely prepare for, and that even with Maten on the floor has already failed Georgia both early and late in games this year.
Facing his personnel quandary and realizing that he needs to coach like his job is on the line, I think he has to modestly speed things up, try different defenses, and allow guys to play, make the good pass, and shoot when they're open.
4. Go or Stay?
Maten has a quandary of his own. Go, or stay?
If Yante simply looks at his predecessors, the decision is pretty much made. Coach Fox has had a few basketball players before who have faced the "go or stay" conundrum-- two players Fox inherited from Coach Felton, and one he brought in on his own. But each guy who potentially had NBA ability-- Trey Thompkins, Travis Leslie, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, decided to forego their full college eligibility and opt for early entry into the pro ranks.
What about Maten? Well, the jury was out on whether he would come back. Some felt, perhaps selfishly for UGA's sake, that Yante needed another year to develop his game. Others looked toward the future with dread, thinking that Maten would probably bolt for the pro ranks, especially since next year there won't be any J.J. Frazier to feed him.
Well, a wrench has just been thrown in the decision machine. Now that Yante's been injured, I think he just about has to stay.
The potential of a knee injury is always in the back an athlete's mind. That nagging concern can feel like a pebble in your proverbial career-choice shoe. As you think about your family, your future, and the kinds of salaries guys are getting these days. even the NBA bench-riders, the knee-injury possibility is a thought that presents itself again and again. It's a powerful motivator to cause student athletes to go for the money early, or at least, like Todd Gurley, get an insurance policy.
But once a knee injury in fact occurs, and worse, happens late in a college junior's sports career, it totally changes the dynamics.
Pro scouts, who are paid to not gamble with a franchise's money, have to distinguish between pretenders and contenders. If some were casting furtive glances toward Yante or even staring him down, their gaze might be averted now. "Perhaps he needs to play his senior year to see if his knee is really in good shape."
Since even with healthy knees, Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie only played a few months of Big League basketball, Yante probably is best served now by returning for his senior season.
The question remains: If he does return, will Yante have to adjust to a new head coach?
Stay tuned. Tonight's Alabama game and the Q-qbd equation over the last few contests could make all the difference.