Coach of the year awards don’t always go to those who win their conferences, but seldom are they bestowed on someone who enters the final days of the regular season tied for last in a division. I speak here of Mark Fox, and he should be the exception. He should be the SEC’s coach of the year.
Georgia is 5-9 in the conference, 13-14 overall. It will play the nation’s No. 3 team in Athens tonight and the SEC’s absolute worst team in Baton Rouge on Saturday. At this late date, there’s still a chance the Bulldogs can have a winning season. When the season began, even the wildest of optimists wouldn’t have forecast as much.
My early guess was another 20-loss campaign, something that has become a Bulldog staple. (There have been three since 1999-2000, including last season.) After seeing how well Georgia played at Gwinnett in upending Illinois before Christmas, I dialed up my expectation — all the way to 13-17. With at least three games remaining, the Bulldogs already have their 13.
And it isn’t just that they’ve won more than they should have. It’s who they’ve won against. Georgia has beaten five teams — Illinois, Georgia Tech, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Florida — that should qualify for the NCAA tournament. And it isn’t just who they’ve beaten but when.
The Tech victory came three days after the Bulldogs lost by 28 points at Missouri. The Tennessee upset came after Georgia had lost three in a row by a total of 15 points. The victory over Vandy came after another three-game slide, the last of which was an overtime loss to Arkansas at home in which Georgia had led by 15 points at the half. The Florida takedown came 45 hours after the Bulldogs had wasted a five-point lead with 33 seconds remaining in Nashville.
Put simply, every time you figured Georgia had suffered the sort of crushing loss/losses that can derail a happy season, it has righted itself against an opponent of consequence. That says much about the players, but it says more about the coach. Believing hasn’t come easy for Georgia basketball since Tubby Smith left for Lexington in May 1997, but what’s happening now is the beginning of belief.
And why not? Every Bulldog has developed under this coach, some exponentially. Trey Thompkins has grown into a first-team All-SEC player, and he’s but a sophomore. Travis Leslie, also a sophomore, was just a slasher three months ago; today’s he’s one of the fastest-rising guards on any campus. As for those of lesser gifts, consider: In the upset of Tech on Jan. 5, Georgia got just 10 points from its reserves; in beating Florida on Saturday, it received 31.
With a bit more seasoning and a tad more talent, Georgia could well be fighting for NCAA tournament position. It has lost five games in which it held leads inside the final five minutes. It has been beaten by double figures in conference play only twice. (This after suffering four such losses in pre-conference games.) It has gotten better the more it has played, and it’s playing at something approximating a peak level now.
And yes, I would be disingenuous if I didn’t admit that I pretty much hated the Fox hire. But I’ve been impressed with what the man has done — how could you not? — and if he can manage to sign enough big-timers from this state I see no reason why this coach won’t have the Bulldogs in the Big Dance soon enough. He has proved what he can do with holdovers of modest portfolio; I can’t wait to see what he’d do with a team of real potential.
(And yes, I’m headed to Athens for tonight’s game against Kentucky. I’d be obliged if you’d ride along — figuratively, I mean; the VW seats only so many — for our usual live chat. The game’s at 8 p.m., but we’ll get going long before that. Join me, won’t you?)