Talking Georgia Bulldogs basketball, then and now, can be frustrating for fans, as it pretty much comes down to an all-too-brief heyday during the Hugh Durham-Tubby Smith era, followed by much wandering in the wilderness and the occasional flash of hope.
The contrasts were highlighted again this week when Durham and his most legendary player, “Human Highlight Film” and NBA legend Dominique Wilkins, both were elected into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame on the heels of a season that saw a Georgia team widely expected in the preseason to make the NCAA tournament instead settling for getting eliminated in the second round of the lesser NIT.
Durham is Georgia basketball’s winningest coach, leading the Bulldogs to 297 victories and the Final Four in the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance in 1983.
Naturally, he is still beloved by the hardcore basketball fans in the Bulldog Nation; I got a kick out of a reunion of past teams at a game in Athens this season when Durham was introduced and many in the crowd bellowed an extended “Huuuuuuuugh!” just like we used to do back when he was the coach.
Durham was named SEC Coach of the Year three times — 1985 (coaches), 1987 (AP) and 1990 (consensus) — and led the Bulldogs to both their first SEC Tournament title in 1983 and their first SEC Championship in 1990.
His tenure in Athens was really the first time Bulldogs basketball mattered. Prior to his arrival, Georgia had never received a postseason bid of any kind. The Dawgs reached postseason play 11 times during his 17 seasons, reaching the semifinals of the 1982 NIT in addition to that Final Four appearance.
That’s a pretty stunning turnaround.
Eventually, the program under Durham cooled off in the early 1990s and Hugh sort of did himself in by scheduling a fairly weak nonconference slate his last couple of years. His last team had a decent record (18-10) but wasn’t even a bubble team for the Big Dance because of the schedule.
Firing Durham to hire Tubby Smith, the hottest rising coach in the country, was a good move, though it ended up being short-lived success since Kentucky came calling after just two years (with both of Smith’s UGA teams making the NCAA Tournament), and there was no way a coach on the rise could say no to Big Blue.
The program hasn’t been able to get back on a firm footing ever since. Promoting Smith assistant Ron Jirsa was a major misstep by then-athletic director Vince Dooley. Had he nailed the post-Smith hire, Georgia basketball might have really been able to build something special off Tubby’s momentum.
Instead, after two mediocre years of Jirsa came the disaster known as Jim Harrick (a hire engineered by then-President Mike Adams) and the NCAA sanctions from which UGA basketball has never fully recovered.
Dennis Felton seemed like a good change of pace, but the hole dug by the Harrick meltdown was just too deep, and Felton never really could elevate the program (though he did give us one of Georgia athletics’ most thrilling weekends with the unlikely championship won in the tornado-plagued 2008
Which brings us to Mark Fox, who has built a solid program that keeps threatening to break through but hasn’t quite made it yet.
The question is whether we’ve already seen the UGA program reach its ceiling under him, or whether those tantalizing glimpses of what Bulldogs basketball could be that he’s given us are indeed tastes of the future.
I’ve always liked Fox, believing him to be a good coach who really cares about his players, and I really warmed to him after he painted himself up to join the Spike Squad in pulling for the football Dawgs.
But the big question mark hanging over him has always been whether he can recruit at the elite level. Hampered by not being willing to cozy up to the AAU coaches who seem to rule basketball recruiting, Fox hasn’t gotten a top-level player to join him in Athens since the departure of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, but still has managed to put together teams that, when healthy, can hang with even the mighty Wildcats.
After finishing strong last year and getting the second NCAA invite of his tenure in Athens, many observers expected Fox and Georgia to go further this year, only to have a very tough nonconference schedule, the loss of Juwan Parker to injury and the lack of a reliable bench (recruiting, again) result in the Dawgs falling just-short too many times.
So, whither UGA basketball under Fox?
Obviously, Fox’s seat will be a little bit warmer next season, though his job won’t yet be in danger. He will lose two key players in Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines but returns two of his best players in Yante Maten and J.J. Frazier, plus Derek Ogbeide and Turtle Jackson finally started showing real promise late in the just-concluded season. Fox has a couple of highly regarded signees coming in Tyree Crump and Jordan Harris. He’s indicated he’ll sign another player, too.
Will it be enough, or is the UGA basketball we’ve seen under Fox the past couple of seasons about as good as it’s going to get? Is just making the postseason enough, or does Fox need prove soon that he’s capable of adding some hardware to the trophy cases at Butts-Mehre?
Feel free to share your views of the state of UGA basketball.
SPRING UPS AND DOWNS
Not much on-the-field news out of spring football practice in Athens so far, but a couple of developments — one positive, one still-to-be-seen — are worth noting.
On the plus side, it’s looking like Nick Chubb is as amazing a rehab patient as he has been a running back, with the tailback definitely appearing to be ahead of schedule in his comeback from knee surgery.
While Chubb hasn’t been doing any cutting yet, as of Friday’s practice he’d already moved beyond just running straight ahead, and that’s definitely good news. There’s a long way to go before we’ll know whether he’ll be anywhere close to 100 percent in time for the opening game with North Carolina, but the odds are looking better now than was expected.
On the other hand, I’m not sure what to make of Kirby Smart making public the fact that he pulled aside second-string quarterback Brice Ramsey before practice early in the week and urged him to be more assertive and more of a leader, telling Ramsey: “Show me that it means something to you. Show me that you want it.”
Some folks had already written the rising junior off as the punter-to-be after last season, but with the unremarkable Greyson Lambert running the first-string and highly hyped new arrival Jacob Eason still learning the ropes with the third-string, Smart apparently wants Ramsey to take the current QB competition more seriously.
Of course, last year Ramsey was considered the heir apparent, only to lose the starter’s job to newly arrived transfer Lambert, prompting lots of grapevine chatter that No. 12 lost out because he wasn’t a hard enough worker.
With a new coaching staff, you’d figure that everyone would start with a clean slate, but getting called out publicly by the head coach during spring training for being too laid back makes you wonder whether anything really has changed with Ramsey.
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg
Bill King is an Athens native and a graduate of the University of Georgia’s Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. A lifelong Bulldogs fan, he sold programs at Sanford Stadium as a teen and has been a football season ticket holder since leaving school. He has worked at the AJC since college and spent 10 years as the Constitution’s rock music critic before moving into copy editing on the old afternoon Journal. In addition to blogging, he’s now a story editor.