ATHENS — The fourth season of the Mark Fox era of Georgia basketball gets under way Friday when the Bulldogs play host to Jacksonville in the season opener at Stegeman Coliseum.
Generally the fourth year of a coach’s tenure is thought to be a make-or-break time in the ruthless world of modern college athletics. As Fox himself pointed out in the preseason, this is the first year he has recruited every player on his roster.
But Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity doesn’t sound like an administrator who is looking to throw down any ultimatums this season.
“I have all the confidence in the world Mark’s going to lead our program in the right way and in a way we can all be proud of,” McGarity said. “I know how hard he works recruiting. He is all over the map and so is his staff. He’s doing it the right way with the right youngsters and not taking any shortcuts. I feel really good about what Mark’s doing.”
What Fox hasn’t done is win big with the Bulldogs. He’s 50-46 in three seasons in Athens, including 19-29 in SEC play. Only his second team, which went 21-12, has made the NCAA tournament and then was bumped in the first round. Last year’s squad was 15-17 and finished 10th in the league with a 5-11 record.
But McGarity likes the way Fox is going about building the program. He doing it mainly with Georgia players. Eleven of the 13 players on the roster are from the state. And though the Bulldogs were unable to land high-profile Atlanta recruit Tony Parker this past year (he signed with UCLA), missing out on a potential “one-and-done” isn’t necessarily the worst thing.
“Mark’s priority going in is he wanted to recruit the state and he’s done that,” McGarity said. “Are you going to get everybody in this state? No. But if you get three or four of the best kids in the state every year, pretty soon, by their junior years you’re going to have a pretty good team… . Obviously you need players, but you also need to do it the right way, so that when we do experience a little success we can feel really, really good about it.”
Fox seems to like what he has going on. It is with a quiet confidence and a tad bit of excitement that he speaks about the team he is about to unveil.
“I genuinely like our team,” said Fox, who led Nevada to three NCAA bids before coming to Georgia. “We go into the year cautiously optimistic that our team is one we think can have a real solid season. There are a lot of things we feel good about, but there are still some things we need to do in real, live action. There are some things you do in practice you need to find out if can you do it against somebody else and can you do it in front of fans on game night.”
The Bulldogs return four starters, led by 6-foot-5 sophomore guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the top returning scorer (13.2 ppg) and rebounder (5.2 rpg). Georgia will also build around 6-9 forward Donte Williams (8.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg), 6-8 forward Nemanja Djurisic (7.8, 4.2) and 6-8 forward Marcus Thornton (3.0, 4.8).
Five lettermen and four freshman signees combine to make it one of the deeper teams Fox has fielded at Georgia.
“There are a lot of characteristics about our players that I like,” Fox said. “I think we’re more mature physically. We have greater depth than we’ve had before. I think we have a number of guys who know where they can score the ball. I think we just have a better pool of talent.”
The Bulldogs will need to dip into that pool of talent to help shore up the losses off last year’s squad. In Gerald Robinson and Dustin Ware, Georgia lost two guards who accounted for almost every minute of backcourt play the last two seasons. Ware graduated as one of the Bulldogs’ best 3-point shooters of all time. Robinson was an athletic playmaker who led Georgia last season in scoring (14.2 ppg) and assists (114).
Senior Vincent Williams will step in as the heir apparent at point guard. But the Bulldogs also recruited Charles Mann out of Milton High for his ability to play that position, so there will be competition there. Caldwell-Pope will also run the point occasionally and will primarily play shooting guard after manning the small forward position a year ago.
“We think we’re going to be a pretty good team,” said the 6-4 Mann, who led Milton to the Class AAAAA state title as a senior. “We’re pretty confident. It’s hard replacing those two. We’re up for the challenge and we’ll see how it goes.”
Georgia will be favored to win the opener. Jacksonville returns three starters, including double-digit scorers Glenn Powell (F, 6-5, Sr.) and Keith McDougald (G, 6-1, Jr.), from its a team that went 8-22 season last season.
Friday’s game is the first of three the Bulldogs will play against teams from the Atlantic Sun Conference. They also play East Tennessee State (Nov. 23) and Mercer (Dec. 18).
Georgia’s next four games will be as a participant in the 2012 Progressive Legends Classic. That begins Monday night with a home game against Youngstown State, followed by a Thursday night contest against Southern Miss.
Then the heat of competition will be turned up considerably. The Bulldogs face consensus No. 1 Indiana next Monday in the brand-new Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. They’ll face either Georgetown or UCLA the following night.
“I’m sure there are issues on our team, like every team, that will evolve throughout the year that you don’t realize you have,” Fox said. “It may be how much you foul or issues you have that might not have been exposed yet. We’ll address those when they come up.”
Whatever those issues end up being, Fox is going to be given time to work them out. When Florida was in the midst of building up its program at Florida, McGarity was an integral part of the process. He knows these things take time — and patience.
“Will there be bumps across the road ahead? Yeah,” he said. “But look at our history. That’s been our history. We need some stability here.”