Andy Landers recently passed 850 wins for his Georgia women’s basketball head coaching career. He’s been to five Final Fours and 31 consecutive NCAA Tournaments. He knows the road that leads to Elite, and each season, he demands nothing less from the Bulldogs.
This was in evidence at the customary end-of-year player evaluations, held last spring. Though Georgia had once again gone dancing in 2013-14, Landers quickly tempered the “four starters returning theory” bandied about by prognosticators looking ahead to 2014-15.
“The first thing anybody says is that we have four starters coming back,” Landers said in Georgia’s media guide. “Why? How is that important? We told them at the end of last year that we don’t have any starters coming back. We have people returning from a team that didn’t achieve at the highest level. So, let’s start over. Let’s put together a team that can achieve at the highest level.”
Landers reaffirmed this, in quintessential measured tone, during a phone conversation with SLAM last week. “I didn’t want people who had started last season to come back thinking they’d accomplished what needed to be accomplished the year before, and that they had some sense of entitlement to playing time. We sent that message very clearly. If the same people end up in starting positions, so be it. If it’s the opposite, so be it. We wanted to put a team on the floor that better reflected what Georgia basketball has stood for in the past.”
Bulldogs junior Shacobia Barbee, a 5-10 guard from Murfreesborough, TN, didn’t need any extra motivation. That 10-point loss to St. Joseph’s in the Big Dance’s first round? Stung, quite deeply.
Barbee’s been contributing since she was named a starter for her very first game as a Bulldog. There’s a throwback nature to her demeanor, but her game is all 21st-century full-freighted impact. Ever-improving consistency from deep, a mixture of deft and power when she finishes at the rim.
Or spotlight, as Barbee proved quite emphatically during the most crucial moments of her freshman season.
The Bulldogs’ senior trio of Jasmine James, Jasmine Hassell and Anne-Marie Armstrong grabbed headlines during a run to the 2013 NCAA Tournament Elite Eight, and rightly so, but it was Barbee who surprised with some scintillating performances. She became the first Georgia freshman since Theresa Edwards in ’83 to be named to an All-Region team.
In Georgia’s season-ending defeat to Cal, Barbee grabbed a double-double. She played 41 minutes in the OT thriller. She recognizes now how much that run meant for her. How much those three seniors showed her how to conduct herself, how to interpret advice. Flush out any perceived negativity, listen to the message.
“They taught me how to be a better leader,” Barbee says.
“Here’s what you need to know about Shacobia: She listens as well as any player I’ve ever coached,” says Landers. “Not only does she have that gift, but she has a discipline about her. She hears you, she understands you, and she processes what she’s heard.”
Landers calls Barbee a playmaker at both ends of the floor, and lauds her ability to effectively contribute to the flow of the game. “There are very few players in college basketball who do that,” Landers says. “And the cool thing about ‘Cobi’ is, after making a play, she can anticipate exactly what should come next. She turns defense into instantaneous offense.”
There’s always an accompanying statistic to Barbee—something that further stamps her effectiveness. In ’13-14, she led Georgia with 12.2 points—but she became the first player in program history to lead the team in points rebounds (7.9), assists (3.6) and steals (2.6).
Through the first 12 games of this season, all wins for Georgia, Barbee has averaged a team-best 13.9 points on 50 percent shooting. The scoring is great, but Landers points to other parts of her game. And it is exactly that which explains why she is one of the country’s best.
She’s grabbing 7.1 rebounds per game. A third of her boards come on the offensive end. She’s contributing 3 assists, against just 1.4 turnovers. Her 2.9 steals help key Georgia’s stifling pressure defense, which many opposing coaches have labeled “rattling.”
“Our defense is the heart of our team,” says Barbee. “We focused on that from the first couple days of practice. We disrupt teams, and it gets our offense going.”
Landers lauds her leadership, and notes how its helped contribute to a dynamic among the group that’s “clear as a glass of water.” Since summer, he can’t remember hearing a single negative thing said. In August, the team took a tour of Italy. The camaraderie developed during those weeks abroad has yet to dissipate. If anything, it’s been bolstered.
“We come to the gym, and we’re in good moods,” Landers says. “We go to work, we get work done—we work extremely hard—and then we leave in a good mood. There’s nothing going on to muddy the water.”
After that 850th win, which came in his home state against his alma mater, Tennessee Tech, Landers told reporters, “Let’s make sure we get the record straight. These aren’t my wins. They belong to a lot of people. I’ve been at Georgia for 36 years so, yeah, that piece is mine. But the wins, the first one in 1979 all the way through tonight, those belong to a lot of people other than me.”
Players like Barbee. Though she suffered a slight injury in Georgia’s December 10 win over Michigan State, and did not participate in the next few practices, she was by no means idle. Minds like hers stay humming.
Landers remembers running through a play for Barbee’s fellow junior, Tiaria Griffin. The ball would swing around the perimeter for Griffin, who’d step into a three. But as they ran it in practice, Landers had a thought about some possible tinkering. He mentioned to Barbee that she would need to make the key cut in the play. He saw the eyes flutter, the recognition registering immediately.
So you want me to pop out and be the shooter.
“I’m constantly reevaluating everything that we do to see if there’s some way I can ease her into a scenario where she touches the ball on offense,” Landers says. “The second piece about that play I designed: I told her if there’s no shot open, she’d have to make a play.”
Two years ago, Barbee might have shied away from that responsibility. Now, she turned toward Landers, and nodded her head. She got it.
In Georgia’s next game, a 58-51 win over Furman on December 20, Barbee had 5 steals by halftime. She poured in 19 points after the break to finish with 25, in addition to 12 boards, seven of which were offensive.
During her freshman season, Barbee participated with her teammates in a series of history assignments, handed out by Landers. She researched Georgia’s records against certain teams, learned why rivalries had developed with others.
It didn’t take long for Barbee to understand the reasoning behind the task, how Landers was trying to give her a better sense of the program she represented. She channeled those frissons of insight on to the court.
She went out and dominated in that all-purpose way.