There’s a difference between being better than you’re supposed to be and actually being good. Last season Mark Fox drew high-volume kudos – I wrote he should have been the SEC’s coach of the year — for not going 10-20 in Year 1 in a difficult job. A year later Georgia could finish its regular season 20-10, but now we’re asking, “Is this all there is?”
The Bulldogs are 17-8, but it’s an unsatisfying 17-8. Their last significant victory came over Kentucky in the SEC opener. They’ve since gone 0-6 against teams of consequence, four of those losses coming at Stegeman Coliseum.
“There’s no question we’ve let a win or two get away,” Fox said Thursday. Then this: “I’m probably my biggest critic. I think our team should be better. And that’s my responsibility.”
It’s not as if the Bulldogs have been blown out by Nowhere State. All eight losses have come against teams ranked in the RPI top 50, and only the double-overtime loss to Florida has seen a margin greater than eight points. Said Fox: “We haven’t had a lot of breaks, but you have to create your own breaks. We’ve given up 10 offensive rebounds in the second halves of our last two games, and you shouldn’t give up 10 offensive rebounds in an entire game.”
Watching Georgia beat Kentucky on Jan. 8, I saw no reason why the Bulldogs couldn’t make a run at the SEC East title. Their starting five ranks with Florida’s as the league’s best, and Fox is a sharp coach. But Georgia lost to Tennessee at the buzzer and to Florida after Erving Walker’s tying trey at the end of the first overtime, and Wednesday the Bulldogs wasted a 14-point lead and lost to Vanderbilt.
A year ago Georgia wasn’t very good but beat Tennessee, Florida and Vandy at home. This year a better team has lost to all three at home. Is this a case of a program unaccustomed to winning not quite believing, for all its gifts, it’s supposed to win?
Fox: “That’s a great question. Last year nothing was expected of this team. It was just a matter of picking ourselves off the mat after a loss we were expected to have. I think our team this year believes in each other, and I think they know we’re on the doorstep. But when you’re on the doorstep and the door doesn’t swing open, you’ve got to kick it in. We just haven’t kicked hard enough.”
Had Georgia beaten Florida on Jan. 25, it would have been tied with the Gators atop the East. Had the Bulldogs beaten Vandy last night, they’d have been alone in second place. They keep tripping over their moments, and even when they’ve won they haven’t dazzled. They needed a last-second free throw to win at Arkansas, needed overtime to beat awful Auburn and nearly wasted a 23-point lead at South Carolina. They act as if they haven’t gotten past the Florida loss.
Said Fox: “That was a bigger game than we were ready to deal with. We probably didn’t handle it as well as we should.”
(Oh, and if you’re wondering if Fox regrets not fouling Florida’s Walker at the end of the first overtime — Georgia led by three points with five seconds remaining — the answer is no. Fox took the same don’t-foul-when-up-three tack at South Carolina, and it worked. The problem was that Georgia was supposed to make Walker catch the ball going away from his basket, which it failed to do. Me, I’d have fouled.)
Georgia’s RPI is 44, which is near the danger zone. Even worse: The Bulldogs must play at Tennessee, at Florida and at Alabama. Lose all three and they’d enter the SEC tournament needing to win a game or two to make the NCAA field, and there’s no way a team this gifted should miss the Big Dance.
Asked if he believes his team is safe NCAA-wise, Fox said: “No, and if we’d won last night we wouldn’t have been OK. We’ve had some opportunities we’ve missed on, but we have more in front of us.”
And they do. These Bulldogs are much like the Georgia Tech of last season: Too talented to dismiss no matter how underwhelming results have been. But at some point the underwhelming must cease. Georgia has 3 1/2 weeks to find itself, or else it will find itself in the no-account NIT.
By Mark Bradley