Question of the day: Is Georgia accepting mediocrity in men’s basketball?
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Why is mediocrity accepted for UGA men’s basketball? People cite lack of fan support. Why would anyone watch what’s on the floor? Why doesn’t UGA elevate its expectations for basketball?
― Stephen Weeks, Savannah
Stephen, thanks for sending in your question. And you should know, you are not the only one asking it. Whether it be in the DawgNation question-of-the-day mailbag, on talk radio, on the world wide web, in your local bar or in the universe in general, there are many other individuals asking this question. It appeared in several forms in the very email basket from which your question was plucked. So I’ve heard it a lot lately, as have all of us who pay close attention to UGA athletics.
And there’s good reason for that. Obviously, nobody is happy with the way the season is going to date. Entering the game Tuesday night against rival Florida at Stegeman Coliseum, coach Mark Fox’s Bulldogs are 12-8 overall and 3-5 in SEC play. They’re coming off a 56-51 loss at Kansas State. That was Georgia’s fifth loss in the last six games. There’s that, and then there’s the “how” of that. The Bulldogs led significantly in each of their last three losses. They were up by 16 points against both Auburn and Arkansas and led K-State by 6 points with 6 minutes to play. In each case, they went through extended scoring droughts late in the games, which contributed to the defeats. This, of course, is coming in Year 9 of Fox’s tenure and in the middle of a season in which there were high expectations for the program. So none of that is good.
Now, to your specific questions. First of all, I don’t believe Georgia accepts mediocrity from its basketball program. I’ll go as far as saying that, if the season continues to trend as it is and the Bulldogs come up short of the NCAA Tournament again, Fox probably won’t continue to be the coach. In his nine years, Georgia has made the tournament twice and was bounced in the first round both times. Athletic director Greg McGarity has communicated before that the expectation is greater than that and has weighed in on the program enough times in recent years for Fox to realize that he is running out of rope. That’s just the nature of the business.
That said, “mediocrity” is a relative term. Those of us who have observed the program for an extended period of time realize that Georgia just remaining annually competitive in basketball, as it has during pretty much the whole of Fox’s tenure, is an accomplishment in and of itself. There have been only a few exceptionally successful periods in modern UGA basketball history, and a lot of long, sad ones. There were a couple of runs during Hugh Durham’s tenure, one during the brief two-year reign of Tubby Smith before Kentucky stole him away and another during the short, controversial stint of Jim Harrick. None of that means the Bulldogs shouldn’t strive to be great or even consistently very good in basketball. It’s just very difficult to do.
The other side of the Fox quandary is that there is more to coaching than wins, losses and NCAA Tournament berths. Everybody knows that Fox runs a “clean program” and graduates not just most of his players but all of them. But it goes beyond that. Fox is a smart guy, a sharp guy. He’s exceptional from an administrative standpoint. He’s strong with alumni and donors. He’s a good speaker and an excellent school representative. My DawgNation colleague Seth Emerson and I often have talked about how we believe he’d be a good athletic director and/or fundraiser.
That said, that is not what modern-day coaches are judged on. Ultimately, it always comes down to those wins and losses, and Fox simply needs to win more. Why he hasn’t is the issue. His substitution patterns are often frustrating and too frequent. I think he’d do well to stick more with a core lineup of five to seven rather than the constant alternating at all but one spot.
It’s no secret that the Bulldogs miss point guard J.J. Frazier and generally aren’t getting very good ― and certainly not consistent ― guard play. But they knew Frazier would be graduating and should have addressed that position. Meanwhile, there are a lot of other players on the roster, current and past, who simply look like recruiting misses. It always comes down to having better players. Georgia definitely needs to do better on that front.
Then there’s this: If not Fox, then who? Evaluating basketball coaching candidates is not my strong suit. I know Tom Crean is out there, but he’s older and washed out at Indiana, so would he be an upgrade? And if Georgia doesn’t go that route, it has to go the way of mid-major coach or major program assistant coach. That route is what got the Bulldogs Fox and Dennis Felton and is typically a 50/50 proposition at best. So there is no simple solution.
I don’t buy the facilities argument. Stegeman Coliseum, which recently underwent its umpteenth multimillion dollar renovation and actually looks pretty good to me, is not the problem. It’s the team that’s on the floor that will dictate the environment and atmosphere 0n game day. UGA always has demonstrated that in basketball. Put a winner on the court and the fans will come watch them play, and they’ve been doing that pretty consistently during Fox’s tenure.
But if the Bulldogs keep playing like they’ve been playing this season, which already has resulted in home losses to Arkansas and South Carolina, fans aren’t going to keep coming. Fox has a month and a half to turn it around. Otherwise, that might be all the time he has left in Athens.