A month ago, you’d have sworn this was another 20-loss season waiting to happen. Now you’d have to say Georgia should be able win enough games to make this a respectable losing campaign, and no, that’s not an oxymoron.
The Bulldogs beat a pretty fair Illinois team in the Arena in Gwinnett on Saturday, and it was a night that began as an embarrassment. There seemed to be more Illini fans in a building that was more than half-empty — “It may seem like a road game,” Georgia coach Mark Fox told his men beforehand — but those in red wound up yelling last and loudest.
Georgia wasted a lead in the final minutes but snatched the game back at the end. “A great win for the team and the program,” Fox called it, and darned if it didn’t seem pretty huge. It kept the Bulldogs from falling below .500 — they’re 5-4 — and should serve to bolster them for SEC play.
Fox: “When you beat a good team, it makes you feel good. And we beat a really good team.”
The Illini arrived unranked, but they did go to Clemson and beat a ranked bunch of Tigers in the ACC/Big Ten challenge. Against unassuming Georgia, however, Illinois was forever on the back foot. The Bulldogs led by five points in the first half by nine twice in the second.
And even when Demetri McCramey scored off a steal and made the accompanying go-ahead free throw with 35 seconds left, Fox wasn’t thinking he’d ordered his team into a delay offense a minute too soon. He was thinking sunnier thoughts. “I thought we’d find out if we were invested enough [in this game] — whether we were used to losing. This game showed signs of progress for us.”
Well, yes. But Georgia basketball fans, what few of them there are, know not to get giddy. They’ve had it bad for a good long while. The program has had six coaches (against three NCAA tournament victories) in 15 years, and over the past decade it has become the Southern standard for wretched seasons.
Georgia was 10-20 in 1999-2000, Jim Harrick’s first go-around, and 8-20 in 2004-2005, when Harrick’s recruits finally departed and Dennis Felton wa, in Year 2, left to his own devices. And they were 12-20 last season, when Felton was fired in January and Pete Herrmann finished up. And this year didn’t seem to augur anything better.
The Bulldogs were picked to finish last in the SEC East, and they’d already managed to lose to Wofford at home. But they’d really only lost badly once — at UAB — and against Illinois they seemed better prepared and more inspired. As Illini coach Bruce Weber noted, speaking of the pro-visitor crowd: “[Georgia] played like the motivated team.”
Fox was a strange hire in the sense that he had no ties to the South, but he’s a good floor coach. (Then again, so was Felton.) The key for him will be, as ever, recruiting. He’s playing with Felton’s guys and has them playing better than they did last season under Felton, but at some point Fox will have to find his own guys.
He landed only one middling prospect in the early signing period, and he’s going to have overcome a ton of skepticism toward Georgia basketball in his own new state. (Like the sight of playing a game in Duluth, Ga., and having your fans outnumbered.)
But a victory like Saturday’s could go a ways toward turning some heads. And, if nothing else, it should give these Bulldogs the faith to win eight more games, give or take, and finish something like 13-17. But it must be noted that Harrick’s first team had big December wins over Georgia Tech and Wake Forest in the same week to get to 5-3 — and still finished with 20 losses