Is top 2019 recruiting class reason enough for UGA to keep Mark Fox?

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Georgia basketball coach Mark Fox runs a clean program, but is that enough for UGA?

After a dispiriting month that saw University of Georgia basketball becoming something of a dumpster fire, two exciting upset wins this week over Florida and Tennessee have breathed some life into the Dawgs’ season.

Yes, there’s still a chance of Georgia making up enough ground to get into the Big Dance.

Senior forward Yante Maten has been one of the few bright spots this season for the Bulldogs. (Steffenie Burns/UGA)

But, if it doesn’t happen, another promising Georgia basketball season will have fallen short of expectations, despite three wins over ranked teams. That would leave coach Mark Fox with a measly two first-round-and-out NCAA Tournament appearances, and no SEC Championship Game appearances, in nine years at Georgia.

Barring some sort of miracle run to finish the season, the Fox hot-seat talk likely will intensify. And, as usual, his relative strengths and weaknesses make it difficult to come to a clear-cut conclusion on which is the better path forward for the UGA basketball program: 

Should Georgia continue to exercise patience with Fox, who runs a clean program, graduates his players, and has had four 20-win or better seasons in Athens, never a hotbed of basketball success?

Or, does Fox’s slim postseason record — especially in comparison with what other SEC “football” schools have done — mean UGA should cut and run?

Seems like we were having this discussion just about a year ago and, in fact, we were. It was early last March that Yahoo Sports quoted sources as saying UGA was “exploring its options” to replace Fox and “gathering information on potential successors.” Athletic director Greg McGarity quickly shot down the “unfounded rumors” and announced Fox would be back this season.

But, despite preseason predictions that Georgia was almost a lock for an NCAA Tournament berth, and the Dawgs getting off to a relatively strong 9-2 start in the nonconference portion of the schedule, Fox’s team is a disappointing 15-11 overall and 6-8 in the conference.

Included in that loss column are some really ugly games, most notably losing by 15 to Vanderbilt, one of the worst teams in the SEC.

Senior forward Yante Maten leads the conference in scoring, but Fox has not come up with a satisfactory replacement for the departed J.J. Frazier in the back court, leading to streaky offensive production. And, even the normally stout Georgia defense has faltered in some recent losses. Fox’s reputation as a game strategist also has come into question over the past couple of years.

“I know it’s frustrating to our fans. I’ll take full responsibility,” Fox said after the Vanderbilt loss. “I can’t get this group right now to play as hard and as effectively as we need to.”

Georgia has been selling out games at Stegeman Coliseum, despite its mediocre record. (John Kelley/UGA)

However, perhaps because of the latest Stegeman Coliseum renovations (with new seats and video screens), the roundball Dawgs have notched their best home attendance mark in several seasons this year, averaging 8,104 over 12 home dates so far, the highest since drawing 8,250 fans per game in 2010-11. 

The team’s game Saturday against Tennessee was a sellout, and its game next Saturday against LSU also is sold out, so the Bulldogs are likely to top 8,000 tickets sold per game for the sixth time in the 2000s.

Imagine how the Steg would be rocking if Georgia had a really good team! (Those of you over age 30 probably can recall the exciting atmosphere of games in the mid-1990s, starting with the arrival of Tubby Smith.)

In some ways, the Fox situation is reminiscent of the debate a couple of years ago over Mark Richt, who won consistently, just not at a high enough level. Only, this is Georgia basketball we’re talking about, so the pressure on McGarity to do something about a program that has plateaued is a whole lot less intense.

Even so, Fox’s lack of progress might have made an easy case for ending his run in Athens if it weren’t for the fact that, after years of the Georgia program rarely attracting top-flight talent, the Dawgs actually have put together a 2019 recruiting class that’s currently ranked No. 1 in the nation.

Is that reason enough to keep Fox, or do the disappointing results he’s gotten the past two seasons with decently talented lineups argue in favor of making a change?

Keep in mind, there’s always the chance that firing Fox at this point might endanger that recruiting class and send 5-star Ashton Hagans and 4-star Elias King elsewhere. In fact, preserving the recruiting class is the prevailing argument I’ve heard of late for keeping Fox, who has two years remaining on a contract he signed in 2015. (The buyout if Georgia let him go at this point would be $1.1 million.)  

As tempting as it might be, keeping a coach in order to hold on to recruits is a dangerous game. What happens if Kentucky whiffs on someone and swoops in at the last minute to snatch one of Georgia’s commitments? Then you’re stuck with the same old, same old.

Assistant coach Jonas Hayes (center) has been mentioned as a possible successor to Mark Fox. (Steffenie Burns/UGA)

On the other hand, there’s no guarantee Georgia could do better than Fox. Let’s face it, head basketball coach at UGA, which doesn’t have much of a basketball history, is a pretty middling job — and always will be in the shadow of the head football coach.

Hoping for some outside perspective, I put the question to a diehard Kentucky basketball booster I know named Herb. He said he really respects Fox and thinks he deserves more time. Still, Herb noted, “Georgia’s a big school. It can compete with the best of them. It certainly can recruit with the best of them. It ought to be doing better in basketball.”

As for the idea of keeping Fox, my buddy Owen, a lifelong UGA fan, thinks that “if we finish strong, I could see giving Fox one more year.” But, he said, “If we continue to bomb out and miss the NCAA, it would be hard to justify keeping him.”

Another UGA fan, Joel, noted that, “Since UGA basketball is a WAY distant second to football, for me at least, I say give him a chance to coach the upcoming recruiting class. I was firmly of the belief that Fox would never get it done, but that was mainly because of his mediocre recruiting. I’m not sure what is wrong with this year’s team; it’s a fairly talented bunch. But, I think we can be patient and see how he fares with some elite talent. If we were talking football, it would be past time for him to be fired.”

For other fans, there’s no question a change is needed — now. Said my brother Tim, “It’s down to this for me: Fox is a terrible game coach, and not much of practice coach, either. He can have five blue-chip players and they’d still lose games, because they wouldn’t know what to do in pressure situations.”

My son Bill, who has degrees from both UGA and North Carolina (where basketball rules), also thinks “it’s pretty clear that Fox cannot orchestrate an offense that is workable. Every year is the same plodding offense without much shooting prowess or good shot selection. They usually play pretty good defense, and they seem to try hard consistently. But, offensive skill is always lacking. And his personnel/sub management is sometimes baffling. We’ve been passed by a lot of programs this year.”

If Fox stays, Bill said, “it’s because of the recruits and, frankly, Kirby’s success giving everyone else some breathing room.” 

If a change is made, many observers think Georgia stands little chance of stealing a head coach from a top-level program. So, what should McGarity do? Should he go with another rising coach from a mid-major, or an assistant from a top program (as he did in football, hiring Kirby Smart from Alabama).

Blawg reader Jim P. likes the idea of “hiring a top assistant, great recruiter, from a proven championship program, such as Duke, North Carolina.”

Actually, the natural successor to Fox already might be on Georgia’s bench: former Bulldogs player Jonas Hayes, who is UGA’s main basketball recruiter and probably would have more of a chance of hanging on to that 2019 class.

Any way you look at it, there are no easy answers.

As for me, I’ve always liked Fox, and thought it was recruiting difficulties holding him back. But, with those less of a factor now, his game coaching does seem to be more and more in question. His team this season was expected to be his best, and it started out pretty good, but, too often, it hasn’t held on to leads and, hasn’t even stayed in the game against some lesser teams. 

What will it take to generate excitement around the UGA basketball program? (Nicole Adamson/UGA)

Still, as my old friend Dan said, the past two games are very encouraging, with Fox making greater use of his freshmen. Would another couple of big wins be enough, or does Fox have to make the NCAA Tournament to survive?

I don’t know. My gut feeling is that Fox might squeak by this year, but I’m not sure that he should. I worry that, if a stellar recruiting class buys him another year, it still might not produce much more in the way of sustained success than did the extra year Dennis Felton got thanks to the “tornado tournament” win.

What concerns me more is that I’ve encountered quite a few UGA diehards who tell me basketball has completely fallen off their radar:

“Let’s talk about Jake Fromm and Justin Fields instead.”

That’s a shame. I’m convinced that, if Georgia could put a consistently winning product on the court, Dawgs fans once again would be excited about the program, and basketball might truly matter at UGA.

Maybe that still can happen with Fox. 

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