ATHENS — Charles Mann was asked Tuesday to reflect on the evolution of the Georgia basketball program in the three years since he arrived on campus. He smiled and shook his head.
“(A) 360,” Mann said.
He meant a 180, but to paraphrase “Animal House,” forget it, he’s rolling.
When seniors Mann and Kenny Gaines, the team’s top returning scorers, arrived four years ago the program had experienced one winning SEC season in the past nine seasons. The past two seasons the team has gone 12-6 and 11-7 in the conference, tying for second place in the SEC, and the year before the Bulldogs were 9-9.
“I mean, me and Kenny didn’t just do this by ourselves. We had Marcus (Thornton), Nemi (Djurisic), everybody else,” Mann said. “But the last four years it’s been a 360, and I feel like we brought some excitement back for Georgia basketball. We’re just going to have to continue to build on that.”
To be sure, Georgia hasn’t exactly set the college basketball world on fire the past few years. It almost did last March, but couldn’t close out Kentucky. Then the Bulldogs went on to the NCAA tournament, but were unable to knock off Michigan State.
Still, the program has undoubtedly had an uptick. Coach Mark Fox will have a chance this year to become the first coach in Georgia men’s basketball history to have three straight 20-win seasons. (The only other time Georgia has won 20 in three straight years it was split by two coaches, Tubby Smith and Ron Jirsa.)
“The rollercoaster historically we have to one day get away from that,” Fox said. “If we can find success again this year, put together the third straight 20-win season, that only helps. But it’s gonna take time to establish the consistency and this year is just another opportunity to do that.”
But what about the next step? Georgia is 0-for-2 in those NCAA tournaments under Fox, though last year it went to the final minute against Michigan State, which went on to the Final Four. The Bulldogs has won one NCAA tournament game since 1997, after Tubby Smith left. Jim Harrick won a game in 2002. Of course Georgia so rarely makes it that far – it has made only five NCAAs in the past 17 years – and Fox bristled at the notion that it’s time to push the expectations higher.
“Our focus is trying to get better every day, trying to get better every year, and if that leads us to those things that you mentioned (going further in the NCAAs), then great,” Fox said. “Our team has not even sat down and talked about what we want to accomplish. We’re not there yet. We’re just trying to get good at some things. And once we make some progress and other things become a realistic conversation then we’ll start to have those conversations.”
A few other notes from Georgia’s media availability:
– Gaines (foot) and Juwan Parker (achilles) still have restrictions, but they’ve been practicing and Fox said they’re “on track” to play in the season opener.
“We hope we’re accurate in that we think they’re on track to go when the season starts,” Fox said. “We’re probably a little bit precautions because at this stage of the season and at this time we can’t afford a setback. And we’ve had some minor ones. But I think both of them have managed their injuries very well.”
– Georgia has to replace its two starting post men last year, Thornton and Djurisic. The good news is the Bulldogs signed two athletic post players in Derek Ogbeide and Mike Edwards, to join sophomores Yante Maten and Osahen Iduwe and junior Houston Kessler.
“We’re bigger up front than we were last year. We’re just younger. And there’s no substitute for experience,” Fox said. “Nemi at 6-7 and Marcus at 6-8 were undersized but their intelligence and their experience really allowed them to be terrific players last year. This year Derek at 6-8, Mike at 6-9 as freshman coming in, we’re bigger, were more athletic up front. We’re just younger. … It’s like a wild colt. You’ve gotta get them trained. Right now they’re making mistakes out of aggressiveness. That’s OK. They’re gonna make mistakes.”
– There is, however, experience in the backcourt. Not only Mann and Gaines but juniors J.J. Frazier and Juwan Parker, who also have starting experience. The team also adds freshmen Turtle Jackson and E’Torrion Wilridge.
Fox said they haven’t yet practiced with a four-guard lineup yet. If they could get healthy they might “experiment” with it.
“We have always tried to play real conventionally, with two front-line players,” Fox said. “Match-ups dictate so much of this game. Depending on how match-ups are, are people going to adjust to us or are we going to have to adjust to them and maybe go small. It really will depend on how much progress we make in the next three weeks.”
Georgia opens the season on Nov. 13 against Chattanooga.