ATHENS – Until the tournament berths, Mark Fox sells hope. Until some of the five-star basketball recruits who have been drifting out of the state stop and think, “Wait, why not Georgia?” the Bulldogs’ new coach will talk about concepts like commitment and work ethic and building a program the right way.
And he’ll tell stories like this: “I had dinner with Ramon Sessions in the fall. He just signed a four-year, $16 million contract [with Minnesota] Here’s a guy we signed at Nevada two weeks before his freshman year. Nobody wanted him. But he turned into a great player. The key is finding players willing to commit to the process.”
But nobody could have figured the process would produce results this dramatic. Or this soon. Why not Georgia?
Midway through Fox’s first season, the Bulldogs just upset a top-10 team for the first time in six years and played before a home sellout for the first time in three.
Mark: Any thoughts on the economy? Global warming? Football games in Jacksonville?
The Bulldogs leveled eighth-ranked Tennessee 78-63 at a packed Stegeman Coliseum. There’s your implausible double of the season. They led much of the second-half by 20-plus points, boat-racing a Tennessee team that came into the game with a 15-2 record and a win over top-ranked Kansas.
“They probably thought it was going to be a cakewalk,” said guard Ebuka Anyaorah.
It’s only one win, much like the upset over Georgia Tech was only one win, much like the upset of Illinois was only one win. But together, that’s three improbable results in a 9-8 season that, well, didn’t figure to be a 9-8 season at this stage.
So much baggage in the program. Seemingly so little talent on the roster. The sense of dread looming so large. Can one coach change things this quickly?
“I’m excited because there’s some excitement around the program,” said athletics director Damon Evans, who hired Fox. “People have responded to what coach Fox is doing. We’re still building. But when you get a signature win like this, it says a lot about the commitment of this team. It says a lot about Mark Fox and his staff, and to have the fans here.”
Senior center Albert Jackson knows what last place and an empty arena look like. He was there a year ago when a 26-point loss at Florida, and all that preceded it, led to coach Dennis Felton’s firing. Even with an 0-3 start this season in the SEC, he never sensed doom.
“It was about this time last season when we lost our first [four] SEC games, and we went to down to Florida and got blown out,” Jackson said. “This year, it was [a similar] situation against a top-10 team. But it was a whole different demeanor. Guys are confident in the system and confident in the coach. Guys were upbeat.”
They passed the ball with efficiency. They dominated the paint (20 of their 42 first-half points came on dunks or layups). Trey Tompkins (21 points, eight rebounds) and Travis Leslie (19 points, nine rebounds) were a combined 17-of-24 from the floor.
Stegeman was electric. Who knew that was even a scientific possibility?
When Leslie jammed home a rebound to make the score 72-48 with 6:28 left, the building rocked.
“This is one of the reasons I came to Georgia,” Fox said, referencing the crowd. “We just had a great college basketball game at Stegeman.”
It couldn’t have hurt the football program, either. Mark Richt, Mike Bobo and Rodney Garner were in the building, seated in the recruits section.
Who imagined a basketball game could give football a competitive advantage?