As a general rule, February is when the sports world morphs from rock to elevator music.
College football is over. The NFL is over. Baseball’s spring gates haven’t swung open. It’s too early to get excited about NBA playoff races (and, if you’re a Hawks fan, February isn’t providing a wonderful tease for March and April, anyway). The local NHL team – blown up by careless owners and an invertebrate of a league commissioner.
So in February, we turn to college basketball.
Here in the state of Georgia, which produces some of the finer high school talent in the country for seemingly every university in the other 49 states, college basketball is relatively off the landscape.
There is a chance that no team from the state will reach the NCAA tournament field, and that’s not even the most depressing news. The last time no Georgia school played in the tournament was only three years ago.
Nobody expected Tobacco Road. But why all the scorched earth?
New Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory last coached at Dayton, in a state that regularly gets a handful of schools in the tournament. This has been an adjustment for him, but he saw it coming.
“You had four schools — Georgia Tech, Georgia, Georgia State and Kennesaw State — that have all changed coaching in the last few years,” he said. “And it’s not like those coaches just left for another job. When coaches leave, that usually means the programs are in pretty good shape, but that wasn’t the case here. Everybody’s in a different phase of the rebuilding process, but we’re all in an environment where things need to be fixed and put on the right track.”
The state has one plausible torch-bearer: Mercer (of Macon). The Bears are tied with Belmont for first place in the Atlantic Sun Conference. The winner of the conference tournament will get the automatic berth. (CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm currently projects Belmont as in; ESPN’s Joe Lunardi gives it to Mercer. Both are pretty good at what they do, so flip a coin.)
I broke down Palm’s list by state. The 68 teams (including the eight teams playing first-round play-in games) come from 31 states plus D.C. (Georgetown). North Carolina projects to have five, California four, Ohio has four, Tennessee four.
Even the state of Mississippi has three (Mississippi State, Mississippi Valley State, Southern Miss).
If Georgia is blanked, it will be in the company of Wyoming, the Dakotas and I’m guessing Puerto Rico.
There were low expectations this season. They were met. Mark Fox did a nice job in his first two years in Athens. The early defections of Travis Leslie and Trey Thompkins to the NBA, while modest losses by Kentucky and North Carolina standards, flattened the Bulldogs. They are young and not terribly deep. Fox’s recruiting efforts so far: OK.
Gregory was handed a bad situation. The program had slipped under Paul Hewitt and divided the fan base. Iman Shumpert left early. It’s also difficult to build a following when the team is living a relative vagabond existence, splitting games between Philips Arena and Gwinnett Arena, while the on-campus venue is rebuilt. The Jackets are 2-8 in the ACC entering Wednesday’s game at Wake Forest and hardly project as a conference tournament upset team.
The turnaround of a damaged program takes time, only after consistent recruiting classes. This much we know: No state school is making it on the strength of RPI alone. Here’s how the seven rank among 344 schools in RPI: Georgia 93, Mercer 105, Georgia Tech 138, Georgia State 144, Georgia Southern 196, Savannah State 201, Kennesaw State 314.
We’ve heard that winning can be infectious. The problem is that no school has been infected yet. When Gregory coached at Dayton, he said it helped when schools such as Ohio State, Cincinnati and Xavier were rolling.
“You definitely get a sense of excitement when everybody’s winning,” he said.
We’ll have to take his word for it.
By Jeff Schultz