As the men’s basketball Dogs prepare for their final regular-season game at the Steg tonight against high-flying Kentucky (8 p.m. on Peachtree TV), I think it’s safe to say most of the fans who felt let down by Damon Evans’ announcement of the relatively unknown Mark Fox as head coach last spring are now feeling pretty good about the hire.
The Dogs might not have a winning record (yet), but what Fox has accomplished in his first season in Athens is pretty amazing. True, the cupboard wasn’t entirely bare when Dennis Felton departed UGA — Trey Thompkins had future star written all over him and Travis Leslie had shown flashes of potential, though he had to sit out the last five games of the 2009 season to concentrate on classwork.
But if not at an all-time low, the program was pretty near it a year ago. The fans had lost interest and, more importantly, the players looked poorly coached, unmotivated and appeared to have lost hope.
Not much was expected of Fox in his first season, and a couple of early games — a loss to UAB, a blowout by Missouri — seemed to portend a long, painful season.
But thanks to the discipline and coaching provided by Fox, this proved to be a different bunch of Bulldogs, pulling out shocker wins over nationally ranked opponents (including heavily favored Georgia Tech) and producing a more than respectable string of home wins. True, Fox hasn’t yet managed to get his first road victory, but his team has come tantalizingly, heartbreakingly close.
One big change this season is that Georgia has been competitive in all but a handful of games. Four of its losses this season were not decided until the game’s final possession, and in only four of their losses did the Dogs not keep it fairly close.
No one would have believed it a year ago, but if a few balls had bounced differently, Georgia easily could be flirting with a 20-win season at this point!
That would have been too much to ask, of course, with a young team that’s at least a couple of players shy of having a full SEC-caliber roster. Fox’s Dogs had trouble holding leads in the second half in quite a few games. Turnovers were a persistent problem. And until this past weekend’s win over the Gators, the fatigued starters weren’t getting much support from the bench. Defensive lapses have at times left Fox frustrated, too.
But with Thompkins establishing himself as an all-conference player, Leslie improving by leaps and bounds (literally on his signature dunks) and former walk-on transfer Ricky McPhee always a danger to sink a 3-pointer, Georgia winds up the season and prepares to enter the SEC tourney a very dangerous team.
And the fans are coming back. The basketball-unfriendly work schedule that has prevented me attending any games since the first of the year will force me to catch just the second half on TV, but Georgia looks to have its second complete sell-out of the season tonight and its fourth reserved-seat sell-out, and the raucous student section has once again become a factor at home.
Thompkins and Leslie both are drawing NBA interest, but if Fox can get them to return to Athens, next year could be very interesting. Leslie has already said he’ll be back at UGA next season. Thompkins is playing it coy but recently said he would take into account the upward trend in Georgia’s program in deciding whether to stay “because I want to be known as a guy who helped the program go from where it was to where it will be.”
Make no mistake, Fox is turning heads in the SEC. As my old friend Herb, a lifelong Kentucky Wildcats die-hard, said about Fox this week: “This guy can coach and motivate players. I am impressed with what he’s done this year. … He just needs a couple more players and the other SEC teams had better watch out.”
Now comes perhaps Fox’s biggest challenge. As a newcomer to the SEC, can he recruit the talent Georgia needs to be an NCAA tournament team?
If he can, Evans’ next problem might be worrying about holding on to that no-name coach he hired last year.