ATHENS — There was every reason to expect, heading into the SEC semifinals, that the Georgia basketball team could be embarrassed by Kentucky. Instead it proved to be one of the team’s proudest moments: The Bulldogs led most of the way, answered runs and only wilted after their best player suffered an injury.
In that way, it was reminiscent of last year’s home loss to Kentucky, when Georgia also led most of the way and left the court to cheers from grateful home fans, appreciative of the effort.
What were probably Georgia’s two most impressive moments of the past two seasons still ended in losses. That’s not an indictment. Not at all. It’s just instructive of a larger point.
Mark Fox’s program is in the midst of a pretty good run. It’s just not being appreciated because there has yet to be a breakthrough moment.
Seven years ago, Fox inherited a program that was one of the worst in the SEC. Fox has since built a program that, considering Georgia’s overall basketball history, has done remarkable things lately:
- Three straight trips to the SEC tournament semifinals, which Georgia hadn’t done since 1983-85.
- Four straight years of finishing at least .500 in conference play, something that had never been done before at Georgia.
- Three straight winning seasons in conference play for the first time since 1995-97. More specifically, three straight years of winning at least 12 SEC games, counting the tournament.
- And if Georgia beats Belmont on Wednesday, it would be three straight 20-win seasons for the first time since 1996-98.
Those are all pretty good accomplishments, even though it’ll take more than just reaching the SEC semifinals or NCAA first rounds to penetrate the consciousness of casual fans at a football school.
But here’s the thing: The Bulldogs are close. When you’re making three straight SEC semifinals, when you’re good enough to scare Kentucky twice in two seasons, when you’re in the game in the last minute against Michigan State – during last year’s NCAA tournament – then you don’t have far to go.
This program just need the breakthrough moment to show that the program and Fox don’t have a ceiling.
So what about next season? Georgia needs to fastidiously search for another piece or two this spring. Not stars. Just pieces. They already have difference-makers in J.J. Frazier and Yante Maten. But they need more scorers around them.
Kenny Gaines and Charles Mann may not have had huge years, but their scoring will not be easily replaced. Nor will their defense. Turtle Jackson, the freshman point guard, showed against Kentucky that he could be a factor. And incoming guard Tyree Crump, from all accounts, can fill it up too. Jordan Harris, the other incoming guard, will join forwards E’Torrion Wilridge and Kenny Paul Geno as candidates to help off the bench. (Juwan Parker’s status remains to be seen, but if he’s healthy and sticks around he’s a good glue guy who could help some in scoring too.)
That’s a lot of potential pieces. But the staff should be aggressive this spring to try to find at least one more scorer, particularly in the graduate transfer market. Imagine a sharp-shooting instant offense-type player off the bench, or a player with stretch-4 abilities. Or both.
Another post player would also help for depth, and the future. But it’s not vital for next year if Derek Ogbeide and Mike Edwards develop in their second years. Look at the jump Maten made this season. Ogbeide is a rebounding machine who showed some flashes, such as with that little hook shot. Edwards can rebound too and is athletic, but he needs to spend the summer taking about 1,000 shots per day in the paint.
Given all that, there’s plenty of reason to expect another season of NCAA contention. But fans are understandably starting to get antsy, wanting more than just being in the running on Selection Sunday.
Next year’s team may have that capability, especially if it can add some pieces and avoid unwanted offseason turnover. (Brandon Morris would have been a senior this year. He might have been the difference this year in all those one- and two-point losses.)
Fox, now the third-winningest head coach in program history (behind Hugh Durham and Herman Stegeman) has established a program not likely to go down.
The question now is how far up he can take it.