ATHENS – There was a lot of emotion from Mark Fox after Georgia’s season ended on Wednesday night. His eyes welled up as he talked about J.J. Frazier willing himself to stardom the past four years. Fox teared up again when talking about Juwan Parker having to take himself out of a game with another Achilles injury.
But when it came time for turning the page, talking about next year and the disappointment of this year, Georgia’s head basketball coach spoke directly.
How would you evaluate this season and the program going forward, Fox was asked after his team finished 19-14 with a first-round NIT loss, after expectations of making the NCAA tournament.
“Every year you set out to accomplish certain things, and sometimes you get most of them, never do you get all. We had some disappointments this year. We still were able to win 19 games and get in the postseason,” Fox said.
“There was more that we wanted to do. We fully recognize that. We have nine of our top 10 players coming back, and we have some real talented young men coming in here. I think the expectation in our locker room is that we’ll have a very good team next year.
“We’ll re-evaluate everything that we do. Which is always what we do. We’ll look at exactly how we’ve had to play with J.J. defensively, and there’ll be some changes probably there, because we won’t be as small in the backcourt. We’ll re-evaluate everything and try to make it all better.”
The statement that “nine out of 10 top players coming back” would obviously include Yante Maten, the star junior who has not said firmly yet whether he’s returning for his final year. So Fox was asked as a follow-up if Maten (not available after the game because of an injury) had made a decision.
Fox began by mentioning that the NBA has a new combine, that will invite 55-60 players. But he added that Maten, dealing with a sprained knee the pst few weeks, will be “on the shelf” trying to heal for the next month.
“Yante and his mother and I have had conversations about his future. They’ll make a family decision,” Fox said. “But I say nine out of 10, and yet he has – I’m not going to say he’s made a decision because he doesn’t have to make a decision. Will he come in and say he wants to talk about it? Maybe. And if he does then we’ll have to re-evaluate.”
Maten was out for Wednesday night’s 78-69 loss to Belmont in the first round of the NIT. He had returned from a four-game absence for last week’s SEC tournament, and managed to play 26 and then 27 minutes in each game.
But Fox said Maten’s body was just sore and stiff after playing on back-to-back days. The decision was made Wednesday morning to bring him back.
“Two days in a row was probably too much. But give him credit for really fighting back,” Maten said. “But I thought his body told him after Nashville, you really need to have some rest.”
Then there’s Parker, who took a medical redshirt last season for a chronic Achilles injury in his left leg, then suffered a partial tear in his right Achilles late this season. That would naturally lead to questions over whether Parker – who has long since graduated from UGA – would return for his final year of eligibility. But not only is it the other leg, but Fox said this injury is “not as serious, evidently.”
Parker’s injury has been “lingering,” according to Fox, and came to a head against Auburn in the regular season home finale. Parker’s minutes started to decrease, to the point he only played 12 minutes in the SEC quarterfinal loss to Kentucky. An MRI was taken on Wednesday, confirming that he had a partial tear.
“He had tears in his eyes,” Fox said, describing Parker asking to come out in the Kentucky game. Fox himself was tearing up. “He’s a tough dude. So I knew he was hurt. And I get emotional because when a kid gives you his body like that, it’s the ultimate sacrifice. So we knew it was very unlikely that he was going to come back and play.”
Then there’s Fox, and the general direction of the program.
Athletics director Greg McGarity has already announced that Fox will be back next season, with an announcement last week. That’s a settled issue, it was reiterated on Wednesday night. They shook hands after the press conference, with McGarity telling Fox “I’ll talk to you later on,” apparently in no hurry for the customary season-ending conversation.
Georgia is set to bring in forward Rayshaun Hammonds, the highest-rated recruit under Fox since Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. It also signed forward Nicolas Claxton and has a commitment from combo guard Teshaun Hamilton.
Among returning players, guards Tyree Crump and Jordan Harris showed promise, point guard Turtle Jackson returns for his junior year in probably an expanded role, forward E’Torrion Wilridge showed flashes at the end of the season, and center Derek Ogbeide is developing into a very good low-post player.
But the team must replace Frazier, the guard who made the team go for much of the past two seasons. Frazier was asked after Wednesday’s game to evaluate how the program has changed since he arrived, and what he sees as he departs.
“I think we’ve improved every year. This year we went through a lot of adversity, we went through a lot of things. But since I got here we’ve improved, and like I’ve been saying from the jump coach Fox has done a great job helping us improve every year. Not just as basketball players but as men,” Frazier said.
“I think we’re going in the right direction. We have great talent coming back. We’re going to have great talent coming in. It’s going to be a joy to come back and watch my guys and former teammates play.”