(UPDATED: 11:20 p.m.)
ATHENS – In his second season on the campus-that-doesn’t-hold-bonfires-for-basketball, Mark Fox led Georgia to a winning conference record, an NCAA tournament berth and its first 20-plus win season in nine years – or 15 years, depending on if you factor in the grease stain left by Jim Harrick (NCAA probation, vacated victories, shame).
Fox has been, by any measure, an immediate success. The fact that Georgia was struggling this season entering Tuesday night’s game against No. 1 Kentucky should not have led to some catastrophic conclusion. Like, say, “Agggh! Ron Jirsa!”
“I think the educated fans and media members can look at us and know what we’ve lost,” Fox said. “But I have no issues with the way we’re going about things on the court. We have no academic issues. We have no social [off court] issues. When I first came here, there were some issues. But now we’re two years into changing the culture of Georgia basketball.”
Problem is, culture can’t score. Culture can’t defend. Culture can’t rebound. Culture generally arrives before recruiting, player depth and a string of winning seasons.
Enter: The Bulldogs of 2011-12.
They’re now 1-5 in SEC (10-10 overall) after Tuesday’s 57-44 loss to the Wildcats. The game didn’t seem as close as 13 points. Kentucky led by 16 at 46-30 early in the second half and then just played as well as it needed to — which wasn’t very well.
In short, Georgia wasn’t ready for a game like this. It probably won’t be this season. The Dogs play hard and for stretches they can even be impressive. They’re just not very good. Losing forward Marcus Thornton for five games to a knee injury thinned an already thin cast. Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie, the Dogs’ two best players from last season, left early for the NBA.
Some basketball programs can withstand two early defections to the pros. Not Georgia. The Dogs shot 34.5 percent (19 for 55) and were outrebounded 41-26. The Wildcats’ bench — basically, players: Darius Miller and Kyle Wiltjer — outscored the Georgia bench (three) 25-1. That’s all you need to know about the respective talent depth of the teams.
Fox afterward referenced a late first-half stretch when the Dogs, after trailing 23-22, were outscored 15-4. “That little burp in the first half was extremely costly,” he said.
What some would call a burp, others would call a market correction.
Kentucky is 20-1 record (the only loss coming by one point at Indiana). Unlike Georgia, the Wildcats can withstand player losses. Two years ago, they had five players drafted in the first round. Then they went to the Final Four anyway. This past draft, coach John Calipari lost three more players to the NBA (one in the first round). Yet, they’re ranked No. 1.
Kentucky doesn’t recruit in basketball so much as it opens the door.
Fox is still on the doorstep, knocking.
But he’s making progress. He’s keeping some touted recruits from leaving the state. Last year Georgia landed Greenville guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who starts as a freshman. Two months ago, during the early signing period, he signed three key players: Whitefield Academy (Mableton) guard Kenny Gaines, Milton guard Charles Mann and Miller Grove (Lithonia) forward Brandon Morris. (Gaines has been ranked as one of the top 25 shooting guards in the nation.)
It’s not quite the blur of high school All-Americans that head to Lexington every season. (Kentucky has four players on the Naismith preseason watch list, joining only North Carolina with that many.) But it’s a start.
“I like where we’re going, I like the fact these guys are working together, getting better,” Fox said. “The future is not something I’m worried about.”
Understand something: Fox is not rebuilding. He is building.
This is only Season 3 for him in Athens. He took over a program that hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since March 2002 over Murray State (and that was vacated).
“A program has to have depth to withstand [player] losses and maintain continuity,” Fox said. “I can’t give you an accurate assessment [when that happens]. It’s going to take time.”
We see that.
By Jeff Schultz