Fox has Dogs fans and players believing again

Mark Fox isn't Mark Who? any longer in the SEC. (Curtis Compton / AJC)

Mark Fox isn't Mark Who? any longer in the SEC. (Curtis Compton / AJC)

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.

37 comments Add your comment

Bryan G.

March 3rd, 2010
10:57 am

It’s hard not to be impressed by what he has done this year. The team just looks and plays so much differently. They look smooth and like they actually know what the heck they are doing. Not so much the case under the previous regime.

Scout Dawg

March 3rd, 2010
11:00 am

I think he will be very happy here and will stay after turning the program around.

H DAWG

March 3rd, 2010
11:01 am

kydawg

March 3rd, 2010
11:01 am

I look for an exciting game tonite! Here’s hoping the Cats are looking ahead to the Gators! But since they lost to UT…I doubt it!

kydawg

March 3rd, 2010
11:05 am

Oh yeah…it would also be great to rub a win in the faces of all these CAT fans (my wife included) after listening to their mouths after the football meltdown in the second half this past season. WIN DAWGS WIN!!!

haha

March 3rd, 2010
11:14 am

yeah right…what believing in losing?

haha

March 3rd, 2010
11:37 am

Mommmmm, I messed my pant again. Will you come help me wipe?

I Run This State

March 3rd, 2010
11:39 am

Best UGA basketball (only) blog – http://hoopdawg.wordpress.com

jp

March 3rd, 2010
11:41 am

how is it that we only have one recruit so far? I hope we can sign at least one more for next year for the back court and hopefully one more juco or something for the front court.

I Run This State

March 3rd, 2010
11:44 am

@ JP,

We have transfer Gerald Robinson, Jr who will be eligible to play next year. He is going to be a star…you can read about him hear – http://hoopdawg.wordpress.com/2010/01/25/spotlight-gerald-robinson-jr/

AltamahaDawg

March 3rd, 2010
11:51 am

Are you talking about the fans who put words into Evans mouth to say it was going to be a big name hire and then trashed him for 2 weeks for “botching” the hire and have yet to come back in here and recant? Those fans?

ATL BUZZ

March 3rd, 2010
11:59 am

Will UGA be put out 1st round? If they make it.

Hello BuLLdaug

March 3rd, 2010
12:07 pm

Bill, if the ball bounces the other direction a few times, you guys would be crying again.

[...] go out a winner at home.11.  If Mark Fox can pull an upset of UK, folks in Georgia will begin to believe even more in their new coach.12.  John Calipari told the media yesterday that Kentucky is “an unbelievable defensive [...]

DirkDawggler

March 3rd, 2010
12:50 pm

The season isn’t over yet. If Felton’s team can win the Tourney, no reason why Fox’s Hounds can’t do it. No one is going to want to draw the Dawgs.

Dr M

March 3rd, 2010
12:59 pm

Coach Fox is the future of Georgia men’s basketball and the future is bright as long as he stays with us.

leedawg

March 3rd, 2010
1:01 pm

We gots us a BBall coach!! Much rather have Marky Mark than the so-called “coach” down at the North Ave. Trade School (that team has ZERO heart). How many times do you think Derrick Favors has rethought his decision over the past three months??

Lindsey

March 3rd, 2010
1:51 pm

Go Dawgs, beat the Wildcats tonight!!

SOUTH GA DAWG

March 3rd, 2010
1:54 pm

THE DEFERENCE IS OBVIOUS THIS YR. FANS WILL CONTINUE TO COME OUT AND SUPPORT BASKETBALL PLAYED LIKE THIS!! HOPEFULLY WE CAN LAND A FEW MORE PLAYERS AND MAKE A RUN AT THE SEC IN COMING YRS. GOOD LUCK TONIGHT AND IN TOURNEY DAWGS!!!!!!

Dale

March 3rd, 2010
2:54 pm

Release the hounds! The other night I actually sat back and “watched” the second half of the Florida game on a sportsline.com GameTracker (the millenial version of a transistor radio). Georgia basketball. Finally.

Dale

March 3rd, 2010
2:56 pm

haha

March 3rd, 2010
3:36 pm

UGA basketball = womens bobsledding = crappy

SoCal Dawg

March 3rd, 2010
4:12 pm

Now all we have to do is win the SEC Tourney and the madness begins! GO Fox! Go Dawgs!

Tailback U

March 3rd, 2010
4:13 pm

If this guy can recruit it will be good ride in the next
few years. C’mon guys let’s finish with a flurry in the
SEC.

bart

March 3rd, 2010
5:04 pm

I was one who was cautiously optimistic about Fox’s hiring bcause of the success he had at Nevada. It looks like that maybe my optimism was justified. We will see what kind of recruiter he turns out to be. Of couse, recruiting is the key. I hope a lot of kids will now consider staying in state and playing at UGA because we have a great coach, teacher, and mentor.

Michael Scharff

March 3rd, 2010
5:16 pm

I like Coach Fox overall so far, and I give him credit for a 180 degree turnaround in terms of the Team’s performance as compared to last year. I realize I am being extremely nit-picky here, but I do wish that Coach Fox would invest in about half a dozen or so neckties in true Georgia Reds and Blacks.
Also, I still feel that there are some coaching issues, and I don’t know exactly what to attribute them to – I swear that Ware thinks he is, as my Dad says, the reincarnation of Marques Haynes from the Globetrotters – JUST DRIBBLE THE BALL, YOUNG MAN, and protect it, instead of making the between the legs dribble at least once on EVERY trip down the floor! That being said, at this point, Ware, unfortunately, seems to be the only Guard we have that can at least semi-competently bring the ball from under the opposing basket across the time line. Also, our passing skills leave a great deal to be desired – I cringe every time McPhee handles the ball. And, finally, there still seem to be way too many times on offense when our guys are just standing around instead of constantly moving.

Boise Dawg

March 3rd, 2010
6:05 pm

First congrats and a big thanks to Coach Fox for bringing some much needed excitment back to Georgia basketball. I hope you are very successful and the coach of Georgia basketball for many years to come!

I was concerned about this hire not because he was an unknown. I knew of him well as I am sure anyone that follows the game did. I was concerned because Nevada had lost a step in the WAC in his last two seasons and missed two consecutive tournament appearances, so it seemed they were sliding in the wrong direction.

Lets hope he can bring in some recruits and get those dawgs dancing again!!

tom trojan

March 3rd, 2010
6:09 pm

Coach Fox is a master recuiter!! I witnessed him for years at UNR and you will be pleasently surprised at what he can and will do! UNRs lose is UGAs gain! Good luck to UGA!!

Floundering Fox Hounds Batman!

March 3rd, 2010
6:28 pm

Mark Fox is gonna realize how tough its gonna be for him to recruit in the SEC while at UGA. By next year he will be experiencing the comb over look on his head as the frustration really sets in. Dawgs will still be seeking its all time 25 th win against the Cats after tonites beat down. Ha HA HA

douglasville dawg

March 3rd, 2010
7:11 pm

Listened to Bruce Pearl on “the herd” yesterday afternoon, singing the praises of Mark Fox. Says that Georgia is one of the most under-rated teams in the country;and that no one will want to play Georgia next year.

CatsFly

March 3rd, 2010
10:15 pm

Glad it doesn’t take much to exite Dawg BB fans. That ought to keep Stegmon 3/4 full for big games.

Bo williams

March 3rd, 2010
10:18 pm

13 and 15, or the like, might exite Dawg fans. I doubt it will excite any recruits who are being looked at by Duke or UNC or Kentucky.

Losing Record

March 3rd, 2010
11:13 pm

Fox believes!!! Another blowout loss to UK!!!! Believe it! Back to the trailer park dawgs—season’s over.

Whopper Dawg

March 4th, 2010
4:40 am

For all of the comments above, Fox has done a great job, better than anyone could imagine. If he can recruit, and I believe he can, we have a great coach.

GO DAWGS!!!!

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AceDawg

March 4th, 2010
10:52 am

I’d think Fox will stay at UGA if he can recruit there. He needs one or two lucky recruits this year to keep momentum moving. I’m sure if UGA looks good next year, they will have turned the corner and be in the running (like actually getting consideration!!) for all of the best Georgia high school players as well as surrounding areas.

I-DOG

March 5th, 2010
12:38 pm

Altamaha:

I was concerned about this hire when it was announced. I had a different guy in mind that was not a big name, but I have to say that I was impressed with what Fox did in his first year. It gives me a little bit of hope on UGA basketball.

UGA probably has the most fertile basketball recruiting ground in all of Division 1 basketball with Atlanta being so close to Athens and only 1 “basketball” school to compete with in tech within a 3 hour drive of these recruits homes. The proof will be in getting committments from just a couple of of the top home grown guys each year. Nobody has been able to do this in Athens in the last 25 years. I hope Fox can.