Playing Vanderbilt at Memorial Gymnasium is always a tough task. But it’s made even tougher when you’re playing a freshman point guard.
That’s one of the chief concerns for Georgia coach Mark Fox as he introduces Charles Mann and two other freshmen to the funky confines of the Commodores’ home court on Wednesday night. Vanderbilt is, of course, one of the few schools in the country that plays in an arena with a raised court and the only one that does so with the teams’ benches on the baselines.
It’s important that the Bulldogs (13-14, 7-7 SEC) play well in Nashville as they’re actually still in position to play for one of the four first-round byes in the SEC Tournament. Meanwhile, Vanderbilt (11-15, 5-9) is more vulnerable than usual.
“I’m probably more worried about it this year with such a young perimeter group," Fox said of the Commodores’ court configuration. "There’s a lot of the game they’ll have to manage on their own on the floor. I think it’s natural to talk about how unique (Memorial Gym) is and I think it’s kind of cool that the benches are on the baseline. But I do wish the coaches were allowed to at least move partway up the sideline.”
At Vanderbilt, coaches are not allowed to trek up and down the sideline in a traditional coaches’ box. They, too, must remain on the baseline. Most other arenas where the court is built up several feet above floor seating, such as Minnesota, allow the head coach to be on the sideline so he can communicate with his team at both ends of the floor.
“That doesn’t make any sense to me,” Fox said. “I mean, I think it’s a neat part of Vanderbilt, a neat part of their tradition. Leave the benches on the end. I’m fine with that. But at least let the coaches go up and down the sideline. You’ve got signs on the sideline now; there’s cheerleaders sitting on the sideline. I’m not that fat. I’m not blocking the view of everybody.”
But that won't change before Wednesday’s 9 p.m. tip (FSN), which presents some issues with a young player like Mann playing the majority of the minutes at point guard. The 6-foot-4 Mann is not starting for the Bulldogs – that responsibility is still falling to senior Vincent Williams – but he has slowly and surely been getting more of the minutes at the position as the season has progressed.
In Georgia’s 62-54 overtime win over South Carolina this past Saturday, Mann played 28 minutes to Williams’ 15 and was the Bulldogs’ second-leading scorer with 14 points. He also had back-to-back double-figure games against Auburn and South Carolina earlier this season and has averaged 22 or more minutes in nine of the last 11 games.
On the year, Mann averages 20.8 minutes to Williams’ 20.1. He's Georgia's third-leading scorer at 6.1 points per game and second-leading foul shooter at 73.1 percent.
“I feel like I’ve progressed greatly, like I’ve done a complete turnaround,” said Mann, who starred at Alpharetta’s Milton High School. “I feel more comfortable with the ball. I feel more in command, more vocal. I just feel much better about the transition from high school to college.”
The Bulldogs have two other freshmen learning the ropes on the perimeter, including 6-7 wing Brandon Morris and 6-3 shooting guard Kenny Gaines. They’re all bracing for their first Memorial Gym experience.
“I’ve heard about it,” Mann said. “I know the benches are at the end of the court and that’s going to make it difficult for us to communicate with the coaches while we’re playing. We’re just going to have to play and trust our system and trust each other and just play the game.”
At times, Mann looks like a dynamic play-maker, driving to the basket almost will and distributing the ball when he doesn’t take it to the rim himself. But his decision-making skills have been an issue at times. He leads the team with 80 turnovers – an average of nearly three per game – and has proven a streaky jump shooter.
Nevertheless, Fox feels like Mann will eventually be a great point guard for the Bulldogs. And Fox knows a thing or two about exemplary point play, having tutored eventual NBA players Ramon Sessions and Armon Johnson at Nevada.
“I will say when I first saw Charles play the first person he reminded me of was Ramon Sessions, and Ramon obviously has had a good NBA career,” Fox said. “Charles is big. He’s got a natural instinct to pass. He’s smart. He can score the ball from that position. So he is cut of the mold as those others guys and that’s one of the reasons we liked to him.”