Georgia could be dead zone for NCAA’s March Madness

Mark Fox's team reached the NCAA tournament in his second season but the loss of Travis Leslie and Trey Thompkins pushed the reset button. (AP photo)

Georgia's Mark Fox reached NCAA tournament in year two but his third team is young and thin.

Brian Gregory inherited a down and vagabond program this year. (Johnny Crawford)

Brian Gregory inherited a down and vagabond program at Georgia Tech. (Johnny Crawford)

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.

Help.

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

88 comments Add your comment

Sonny Clusters

February 14th, 2012
3:36 pm

Jeff Schultz

February 14th, 2012
3:39 pm

Clusters — Sorry, I don’t do that win-place-show thing. But you’re No. 1 in my heart.

Jeff Schultz

February 14th, 2012
3:39 pm

Almost forgot: SECOND!

Rothschild

February 14th, 2012
3:40 pm

Time for a resurgence in this state. It was not always so barren, but it’s been a long time.

Realist

February 14th, 2012
3:40 pm

Atlanta is hosting the ACC tournament and the Southeast Regionals. This is ground zero for March hoops, not a dead zone. Who cares if Georgia and Tech aren’t playing in mid-March? Was anyone expecting them to be dancing?

Sonny Clusters

February 14th, 2012
3:41 pm

This has been a DEAD ZONE since the Braves’ EPIC Collapse. Then, followed the Falcons and now the pattern is established . . . again. We was thinking something has to change on the baseball field to get sprots moving in the right direction in this town. Maybe the new uniforms sans tomahawk is the answer. Maybe the deer dogs will do it. We suspect, though, that a change of attitude must take place and the Braves will have to really win something (a pennant) in order to call themselves champions. Right now they are champions of the EPIC Collapse. Baseball in 5 days, we can’t help talking about it.

Tumbledown

February 14th, 2012
3:42 pm

This is what I have come to expect from pro and college teams in Georgia (football and basketball): low expectations will be met and high expectations will never be met!

Sonny Clusters

February 14th, 2012
3:43 pm

Jeff, we was just doing that for practice. That, and we love the way the name Clusters rolls off the tongue when talking championships. We would blog about basketball but Clusters can’t jump and that renders us only mortal on the basketball court.

JF Steele

February 14th, 2012
3:45 pm

i hate to be ‘that guy’, but you mean *when in your last quote?

GStateBen

February 14th, 2012
3:54 pm

So Georgia State’s casual mention in this article….was that an oversight? Fourth largest win total in school history and most conference wins since joining CAA.

Tech and UGA were expected to have down years because Hewitt left non-ACC caliber players and Fox had major trouble replacing the scoring and rebounding lost from 2011-12 squad.

So Jeff, why the oversight? Georgia State has the best shot of making the NCAA Tourney out of an auto bid league other than Mercer (which hosts the ASun tourney in March) in this state.

The best basketball is played in Atlanta. Would love to see you at this Saturday’s game.

Gordon

February 14th, 2012
3:56 pm

I think the coaching in this state is miles ahead of where it was 3 years ago, especially at UGA, Tech, and GSU. Mercer also has a good coach, and Kennesaw probably does too. It will take time, but I think in a couple of years the situation will be very good for in-state hoops. The talent is certainly here, as Jeff said.

Danny O

February 14th, 2012
4:00 pm

The state of basketball in Georgia is sad.

Where’s the Count?

Brian Harris-Georgia Southern University

February 14th, 2012
4:00 pm

Georgia Southern is sitting pretty good right now in their conference and if they win the SOCON tournament then they will be in. They never get any press in this paper, but they are one of the most well respected schools in the nation we have much better athletics than KSU and Mercer for sure. They struggled in basketball earlier this season, but have since improved and look to make a really good run in the conference championship.

Re:GStateBen

February 14th, 2012
4:06 pm

wow.. your really think anyone cares about Ga State? Get over yourself.

Benjamin

February 14th, 2012
4:06 pm

Dang you, Clusters. I thought my presence would be number one in his heart.

Paul H

February 14th, 2012
4:07 pm

No excuse whatsoever that the immense talent in this state goes elsewhere. Terrible.

DawgHunt

February 14th, 2012
4:08 pm

Have you never read anything by Ben Moore, aka GStateBen? He is a bit delusional.

Ben"Imatool"Moore

February 14th, 2012
4:16 pm

Me and all 12 of my panther friends will blog about how State is the best school ever. I will show you Mr. Shultz. Please come to my game!Pretty Please!

Freddie Bee

February 14th, 2012
4:17 pm

Savannah State is 9-2 in the MEAC and likely to be the #1 or #2 seed in the MEAC Tournament.
They’ve got a great chance of making a run to the big dance. Of course, they have no shot of an at-large berth.

GT Alum

February 14th, 2012
4:21 pm

If he hadn’t mentioned Mercer, I would say this was an article about Tech and UGA specifically, but he does mention Mercer and other smaller schools in GA and other states, like including Mississippi Valley State as one of that state’s reps. It sounds like it’s still possible for GA to have 3 reps, and Schultz just overlooked the GSUs. Anyone who reads the AJC regularly should be used to such oversights, though.

GT Alum

February 14th, 2012
4:23 pm

Also under the limited audience heading, Tech and UGA’s women’s teams are both in the top 25.

Tech Rules

February 14th, 2012
4:27 pm

GT is only 4 ACCT victories away from the big dance!

Ben"Imatool"Moore

February 14th, 2012
4:28 pm

We are still waiting for our invitation to the big boy table… time to move to the FBS!!

Go Bears!!!

February 14th, 2012
4:40 pm

Mercer runs this state!!!

lanier

February 14th, 2012
4:40 pm

mercer beat tech. I can see them winning a tournment game if they can get a 11 or 12 seed but tough to do from the a sun

Hankie Aron

February 14th, 2012
4:44 pm

GT Alum- Problem is I’m not sure anyone cares about those teams you say he may have left out. If no one cares, then no blog hits

Haha

February 14th, 2012
4:44 pm

GStateBen- Trolling hard as always.

Bob

February 14th, 2012
4:48 pm

And of All the GA Schools, it is The Georgia State Panthers, that probably have the best chance to make the NCAA Tourny…if any.

TheOne

February 14th, 2012
4:49 pm

The team with the best chance of making it to the NCAA tourney is the team with the best chance of winning their conference since eveyone’s RPI is in the garbage. At this point, it’s Mercer, probably followed by Savannah State. No one else has a chance. Not Georgia, Tech, or State. Too much competition in their conferences.

Stinger2

February 14th, 2012
4:52 pm

Clusters: The Boston Red Sox not the Braves are champions of the EPIC collapse. They had lead over the Rays by one more game than the Braves had over St. Louis in early September.

Panther Poop

February 14th, 2012
4:54 pm

Ben Moore.. Your really need a new hobby…

Paul

February 14th, 2012
4:56 pm

D-II Augusta State had a good run. That, too, may be coming to an end though.

GT Alum

February 14th, 2012
4:58 pm

Hankie Aron – Yeah, but does Mercer draw any more hits than the GSUs? He mentioned Mercer and GA’s chances of getting any teams in the tourney, so he’s the one that brought some of the smaller schools into the conversation. Quite frankly, I have to wonder if he would’ve mentioned Mercer if Lunardi hadn’t listed them. Sounds like looking at those 2lists was the majorityof the research he did for this article.

Denver Dawg

February 14th, 2012
5:01 pm

Jeff, don’t count out Wyoming. They’re 18-6 and have an RPI of 65.

What Georgia’s done with their talent over the years has been a consistent disgrace.

Ted Striker sends his regards.

GSU is in Atlanta

February 14th, 2012
5:04 pm

I think the next few years will be pretty good for basketball in the state of GA. UGA & GT will get their ships turned around and be winning again, and GSU & Mercer are already having pretty good years with more to come. I also think KSU will get back to being a good program, but due to some suspension problems are having a down year.

I would say that Mercer definitely has the best shot at the Tournament by winning the A-Sun, and that besides Mercer the only other team that might have an outside chance of winning is GSU.

Shug

February 14th, 2012
5:12 pm

As anyone ever noticed any sort of vibe in the area when Tech/UGA/GSU/Kennesaw/Mercer does well in basketball? Didn’t think so. This March will be like any other March around big bad Hotlanta.

Had enough

February 14th, 2012
5:19 pm

can’t spell nit without uga.

JP

February 14th, 2012
5:22 pm

It would be good to see my Mercer Bears in the tourney. I can’t remember the last time they went.

ub

February 14th, 2012
5:41 pm

Mercer is a pretty good basketball team, good point guard and inside players.

Truth be told

February 14th, 2012
5:47 pm

Maybe if basketball players would stop trying to compete as to who’s team can be the biggest bunch of thugs, and playin’ they hippy hop music, the people of SEC country who do not take kindly to thuggery would enjoy basketball.

Until then, WHO GIVES A _______ ABOUT BASKETBALL?????

Nick Bray

February 14th, 2012
6:02 pm

17 wins and we get our name in this piece twice? Thankfully we have Doug doing a bang up job because the “big boys” at the AJC always seem to forget that 33k student school in Downtown Atlanta. Keep on forgetting because we keep on winning…

GSU is in Atlanta

February 14th, 2012
6:05 pm

@Truth be told…You are just an stereotyping idiot racist. By your assumption, are football players all that much different and if so how?

Steve

February 14th, 2012
6:09 pm

Georgia has been a dead zone for basketball all year round since Bobby C and Vern Fleming left their prospective programs (Vern being on the team that went to the Final Four the year after Nique left).

I realize tech got to the Final Four after Bobby C left, but did they really excite anyone with that team the way the likes of Price, Salley, Oliver, Hammonds, Anderson, Best and a host of others under Cremins reign did? Heck no.

Same with UGA. They had a decent year or two under Tubby, but the excitement just hasn’t been there since the 80’s. I mean nothing.

The Hawks .. same as always. Good enough most years to get around 50 wins and possibly win one playoff series and then done. It’s been going on so long no one evens cares any longer. Let’s face it, the Thrashers came within an eyelash of outdrawing the Hawks many years and most of the Thrashers fan base had to commute from outside the perimeter to downtown. A much larger percentage of Hawks fans are closer to the arean, yet they still don’t show because the Hawks are flat out boring.

Atlanta kept the wrong team. Even as bad as the Thrashers were they were far more exciting to watch in person than the isolation offense, oh wait we changed, oh no we didn’t, still isolation offense oriented Atlanta Hawks. Snooze-fest.

Supersize that order, mutt

February 14th, 2012
6:23 pm

@ Paul, regarding Augusta State, they are reloading and will be back in the fray next season. Of course, that’s Div 2, but it’s still important….or should be.

Buckeye

February 14th, 2012
6:24 pm

Two thoughts………

Duh

You think

Najeh Davenpoop

February 14th, 2012
6:44 pm

The Hawks are still the best sports team in the state, but Georgia State is a distant 2nd. Making fun of a Georgia State fan for supporting his team makes some of you look kind of bitter. Good luck, Panthers. You play on the same street at the Hawks, in effect, so you can’t be that bad!

Beast from the East

February 14th, 2012
6:56 pm

Pitiful. UGA needs to find the right coach. Not seeing enough out of Fox at this point. Great guy, but he has to be able to bring in talent. Jury is still out on Gregory at Tech.

Hurricane

February 14th, 2012
7:33 pm

If Savannah State wins the MEAC, they get an automatic berth. They are presently second in their conference, plus have to play in the MEAC tourney. Also, they are playing some pretty good ball at the moment. Them winning the MEAC isn’t all that far fetched. As also has been mentioned, Mercer has a shot by winning their conference. Georgia still has a shot to get some representatives in the big dance, but it just won’t be the ones that everyone are expecting. Sometimes, our illustrious AJC columnists won’t research anyone beyond GA and GT.

Stateside

February 14th, 2012
8:40 pm

I think this article could have been summarized as: “UGA and GT aren’t having great years; the other teams in Georgia may or may not be having years comparable to previous years.”

Go Panthers, Go Bears! Heck, go all o’y'all, let’s rep the state in conference tourneys!

OK

February 14th, 2012
8:47 pm

I hope Georgia State does well! There’s not enough coverage for the Panthers! AJC!