A lively point of discussion lately among UGA fans — when they aren’t drooling over the prospects of the football recruiting class Kirby Smart this week — is the middling state the school’s men’s basketball program seems to be mired in, and whether it’s ever going to break through under Mark Fox.
My wife and I were at Georgia’s SEC/Big 12 Challenge win over Texas Saturday, and it was emblematic in many ways of where Bulldogs basketball stands these days:
The nationally televised game was listed as being a sellout, but there still were a fair number of those empty seats in the lower bowl that plague Georgia basketball, and the team’s streaky performance made it difficult to sustain any crowd momentum. Thanks to a mediocre performance on the court, the biggest ovation prior to the second half came when the football team’s six early enrollees were introduced. The crowd did finally get into the game in a big way after the Dawgs clawed their way back from being down by 9 points at the half, but the fervor still wasn’t close to what you used to see back in the Tubby Smith/Jim Harrick days.
Part of the reason is the product on the court: Overall, this is not a good shooting team (they couldn’t buy a perimeter shot in the first half), and their careless ball-handling produces too many turnovers, making it tough to sustain a run when they do make one. Fox teams tend to be streaky.
And this isn’t an elite program by any definition. The current team’s two best players, J.J. Frazier and Yante Maten, are good enough to play for anyone, but at times they don’t look well-coached, and the bench isn’t what it needs to be, which is probably a factor in the Bulldogs’ seeming inability to hold a lead in a game’s final couple of minutes.
In other words, Fox’s eighth Georgia team is capable of being just good enough, but not even close to being great. Yes, it’s still possible for the Dawgs to play their way into the Big Dance, where most preseason estimations saw them (though it probably would require at least making the final of the SEC tourney), but, frankly, over the course of the season to date, this has not looked like an NCAA Tournament team.
So, where does the program go from here? I’ve read several pieces asking that question lately, and it’s interesting to see the memes that many of them share: Mark Fox is a fine coach, but Georgia can’t recruit elite players because Fox won’t cheat or consort with supposedly unethical AAU team coaches. … Georgia will never be a championship program because its fan base doesn’t care enough about basketball. … And, the most ridiculous, Georgia can’t recruit elite players because its arena is too old.
On the latter point, I agree with my son, who has degrees from both UGA and North Carolina (where he now lives), and who rejects the “Stegeman sucks” argument, saying, “Stegeman is in better shape and nicer than the Dean Dome,” which averages 19,000 a game.
As for the Fox-won’t-cheat argument, that seems like a too-easy excuse to me. If cheating in recruiting is really that rampant in the SEC, and Georgia knows it, then they need to turn in the violators and even the playing field.
I do think the lack of fan interest and tradition plays a part in holding the Bulldogs basketball program back, but I don’t think that’s a problem that a run of a couple seasons where the Dawgs really were competitive couldn’t fix. I’ve seen the Steg rockin’ with a home advantage equal to anyone’s in the past, and it easily could be that way again.
No, it all seems to come back to recruiting: The state of Georgia may be one of the richest basketball talent bases in the country, but UGA has a hard time keeping the best kids from going elsewhere. Yes, partly that’s because of the lack of a winning tradition at the school: Despite the occasional flash of greatness in the past (which we were reminded of as UGA legend Dominique Wilkins was honored Saturday), kids who play basketball generally don’t grow up dreaming of playing for the Dawgs.
But, this is the Snapchat era, remember, and you don’t have to have a decades-long tradition to attract the best; you simply have to get their attention and give them some indication that, if they sign to play for you, they’ll have a reasonable shot at winning a championship of some sort.
That’s where we get to the toughest question: Is Fox the man for the job?
I honestly don’t know. I like him a lot and I think that, when it comes to nurturing his players and taking care of them, he’s one of the best coaches around. But, I’ve seen enough days where he didn’t seem to be the savviest game coach to wonder if his X’s and O’s are really of a championship caliber. And the way his teams seem prone to at least one or two blow-out losses each season calls into question his game prep.
Of course, there are no guarantees in the coaching business, and there’s always the chance that cutting Fox loose would result in worse times, not better, for the program. But, when I hear these arguments, it’s a little unsettling that they are reminiscent of the arguments that were made for keeping Mark Richt after his UGA football program had plateaued: “Remember what happened to Tennessee after they fired Phil Fulmer.”
Holding on to Fox simply because his program is pretty good, not great, and we could do worse, seems to be making the case for being satisfied with Georgia basketball simply being good, not great.
That doesn’t mean I think Fox should be fired. But, I do think, barring some late-season miracle run, that Greg McGarity and the UGA athletic board need to sit down after this season and figure out exactly what it is they want out of a men’s basketball coach.
And, if the answer doesn’t match what they’re currently getting, they need to do something about it, even if it’s just giving Fox a clear mandate that not-quite-great isn’t going to be good enough anymore.
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