Mark Fox took the Georgia job on April 2, 2009, which makes him the dean of local men’s college basketball coaches, which tells us much about the fluid state of local college basketball. “We’re still unpacking boxes,” Fox said Wednesday, bemused by his status, at age 42, of Elder Statesman.
Then he said: “This is a tough business right here.”
Fox spoke before the Atlanta Tipoff Club’s annual luncheon at the Marriott Marquis. Around the room, three other coaches, none of whom has yet coached an actual game at their particular school, were doing interviews. All were trying to be optimistic, but occasionally a note of reality intruded.
Said Ron Hunter of Georgia State: “We’re going to be better than expected — I’ll say that.”
And beating expectations, to be frank, wouldn’t take much. The four schools represented at the luncheon were a combined 53-72 last season, and that was with Georgia’s 21-12 mixed in. Georgia Tech, Georgia State and Kennesaw State all fired their coaches. Georgia lost its two best players — Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie — a year early to the NBA draft. (And now the NBA’s not playing. What a waste.)
Even if they’re necessary, transitions are never easy. The three new coaches trying to establish an ethos. For Brian Gregory at Tech, the underpinning will be defense and rebounding. For Lewis Preston at Kennesaw, it will be across-the-board accountability. For Hunter at GSU, it will be a breakneck pace.
Said Hunter: “It’s hard to teach winning. I’m not even trying to teach X’s and O’s; we’re just learning to compete. We compete when we go to the bathroom.”
It’s far too early to know if any of the three new men will succeed. None of these jobs are easy; if they were, they wouldn’t have been vacant in the spring. But word from Tech holds that Gregory — “BG,” as he’s known — has imported a heightened sense of organization and tenacity. Which doesn’t mean he’s going to win right away. The Jackets’ reservoir of talent is at its lowest level this century, and BG’s task is complicated by the necessity, owing to the refurbishing of Alexander Memorial Coliseum, of splitting home games between Philips Arena and Gwinnett.
Georgia graced the NCAA tournament last spring — its season was ended by Washington, against whom Hunter’s Panthers will open Nov. 12 — but is itself retooling. All its big men are gone. The new lineup, bolstered by the arrival of McDonald’s All-American Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, will rise or fall along the perimeter. “We’ll shoot it better,” Fox said, “but we’re so inexperienced. We’ve got two guys [guards Gerald Robinson and Dustin Ware] who’ve started an SEC game.”
Even as Preston noted that Wednesday was “the sixth-month anniversary” of his hiring, he was fretting over his first test as KSU’s coach — Wednesday night’s exhibition against West Georgia — with some justification. Students of history will recall that LaGrange College beat Kennesaw last preseason. Two weeks later, the Owls stunned Georgia Tech. Four months later, both head coaches were fired. As Fox said, it’s a tough business. (FYI, Kennesaw beat West Georgia 70-68.)
If there’s a sliver of sunshine amid what figures to be a gloomy season for the locals, it’s that the three new coaches don’t exactly have tough acts to follow. Tech has had one winning season in its past four; KSU hasn’t had a winning season since 2005-2006, and Georgia State hasn’t had one since 2003-2004. And there’s also this: With the NBA locked out and the NHL gone to Winnipeg, college basketball could be the only game in town this winter.
Someone said to Gregory, “The spotlight’s on you guys.” Smiling, Gregory said, “Can we turn the spotlight down a little?”
The point being: None of the locals looks to be Broadway-ready just yet. Georgia was picked eighth in the 12-team SEC, Tech 10th in the 12-team ACC, Georgia State 11th in the 12-team Colonial, Kennesaw seventh in the 10-team Atlantic Sun.
Let’s make this simple and say: First team to break .500 is the new state champ.
By Mark Bradley