AUBURN, Ala. — This is the kind of game where Mark Fox loses support. It’s one thing to talk about operating a program the right way, recruiting players free of bagmen — which isn’t to be confused with the loveliest penitentiary on the plains. It’s one thing to preach patience and building with the hope of a payoff down the line.
But this was game No. 18 in season No. 9. This is down the line.
Georgia lost to Auburn 79-65 on Saturday night. That alone might not seem like that big of a deal. Auburn surprisingly has been really good this season, despite holding out two players because of an ongoing investigation, firing assistant coach Chuck Person and placing two other staff members on administrative leave, and being led by a man, Bruce Pearl, whose just reward at the end of an otherwise successful season might be a firing with another NCAA show-cause penalty.
Pearl might not be the wholesome person in the world, but he can coach. He’ll do great, whichever side he coaches in the Prisoners vs. Guards game.
Auburn is now 17-2 and ranked eighth in RPI and possibly second behind only Louisville by the FBI. (More on that shortly.) So it’s not like losing this game crushed the Bulldogs’ NCAA Tournament hopes. They’re 12-6 and 3-4 in the SEC — not great but not “it’s all over” numbers.
It’s more about how this latest loss happened. The Dogs led by 16 points late in the first half and 14 at halftime. That lead was gone six minutes into the second half. Auburn outscored Georgia 33-4 in one stretch from late in the first half, taking a 57-44 lead.
Some of it was Auburn, which shot nearly 59 percent (17 for 29) after a miserable first half (25 percent). But a lot of this was on Georgia. It played poor defensively, looked lifeless at times and did not respond well to the surroundings and the circumstances.
There are a lot young players on the team. But every team has young players. Collapses such as this are a reflection on the coach. Is there any evidence to believe this will change before March?
“We just didn’t respond to the wave of the emotion in the building,” Fox said. “We just never got calmed down.”
And later: “Our defense just collapsed. I thought we had matured since that point [of holding a big lead]. But our defense collapsed to start the half. Our defense just collapsed.”
He said it three times in case you missed that. Could’ve said it a dozen more.
The hallmark of this team has to be defense, because nobody on the roster is consistent on offense but Yante Maten, who scored 17 points, but 11 of those came via free throws. Auburn was physical with him inside and did a nice job denying him the ball.
Fox: “I didn’t do a good enough job getting him the ball.”
Juwan Parker summed things up best: “We just got punched in the mouth, and we didn’t respond.”
This was their chance. Auburn is good, but Auburn is wounded, to some degree.
There’s a large picture of Pearl on the wall as you enter the lobby of Auburn Arena. Just guessing: That will be coming down soon, along with Pearl.
This is Auburn. In the world of major collegiate athletics, the school resides at the corner of Success and Shame. Hazmat suits should be for sale at the campus bookstore.
Jay Jacobs, the former athletic director, recently resigned amid a typical run of germ warfare, including a major nationwide basketball scandal (which brought in not only the NCAA but the FBI), the abrupt retirement of the softball coach (after sexual-harassment complaints that stemmed from the pursuits of the coach’s son) and the firing of the baseball coach. There also was an ESPN report in October about a tutor allegedly taking a final exam for at least one football player in 2015. Auburn has denied that, but it’s still being investigated by the school.
In Auburn’s defense, the school didn’t corrupt Pearl. He was that way when he got here. He enjoyed tremendous success at Tennessee — six NCAA Tournament berths in six seasons, including an Elite Eight and two Sweet 16s – but was fired in 2011 amid NCAA sanctions and was given a three-year show-cause penalty.
Now, Pearl has Auburn on a path to the tournament. And the penitentiary. The Tigers are among the programs caught in the FBI’s investigation into college basketball for bribery, corruption and wire fraud. Person, who was Pearl’s most visible assistant and was heavily involved in recruiting top players Austin Wiley and Daniel Purifoy, was arrested and charged with bribery (read: buying players). Two other aides to Pearl were placed on administrative leave. Wiley was declared ineligible for the rest of the season, and Purifoy can expect the same decision.
Pearl? He’s working with the backdrop of a new athletic director (Allen Greene from Buffalo) and a school president (Steven Leath) who’s clearly uncomfortable with the investigation.
Some of Leath’s emails to fans were acquired by AL.com in November, and one included this excerpt: “Having three of [Pearl’s] employees suspended or terminated is troublesome at best. His unwillingness to even talk to me about it is particularly troublesome.”
Leath reiterated his concerns at Green’s introductory news conference Friday, saying that while, “Bruce and his staff are doing a great job” on the court: “Clearly, Bruce knows that my expectation is that sooner or later he’s going to have to come in and talk to me and others on campus about what’s going on in the program …”
This looked like it would be easy. (OK, let’s not go down that road.) But everything Auburn shot in the second half seemed to go in. Bryce Brown poured in 28. The Tigers made 5 3-pointers early. They went on runs of 13-2, then 27-4. That was it.
Georgia should be past these kinds of collapses.