ATHENS – It speaks to the sad state of college basketball in Georgia (still) when the two largest programs within state borders are scheduled to play their annual rivalry game at noon on a December Saturday, long after both campuses had emptied out for Christmas break.
Had there been any less buildup for the Georgia vs. Georgia Tech game, it would have been played on a Tuesday … during finals week … in an abandoned warehouse off 316.
“We have to fill the arena when we play them,” an irritated Mark Fox said Saturday, and he was the winning coach.
The unsolicited vent was meant less as a shot at the student body than it was the administrations of the two schools for not doing more to make this a signature event.
Fox has a point. Notwithstanding the scheduling conflicts of pre-conference tournaments, this is a game that should be held at a neutral site (Philips Arena) and on a date when it’s likely to get more visibility. Make it a triple-header, with other games matching Georgia State vs. Mercer and Kennesaw State vs. Georgia Southern.
It would almost be like college basketball, you know, matters.
Fox and the Bulldogs can help their cause. Just play more games like Saturday. They defeated Tech 75-61, getting 35 points from three-point machine J.J. Frazier (6 of 9 from outside the arc) and 17 points and three blocks from Yante Maten. They played their best game of the season without depending on their celebrated backcourt of Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines, who were a combined 3-for-13 from the floor.
“They can be really good,” Tech coach Brian Gregory said of Georgia. “Last year they had (Marcus) Thornton but their guards are better this year. They’re not quite as experienced in the post but Maten is a better player. If they get those guards playing, they can play with anybody.”
Even Tech. Who knew this would qualify as a major accomplishment.
“A résumé win,” was how Fox put it.
Georgia had lost four straight to Tech, which means Fox was 0-4 against Gregory.
Fox said the streak “made us angry.” But when asked about the winless streak vs. his counterpart, he said, “It’s not about me and Brian. It’s about Georgia and Georgia Tech.”
Actually, it’s both. The coaches are the faces of the programs, and Fox and Gregory both are at a bit of a crossroads.
Gregory went 19-51 in ACC play in his first four seasons. He might have lost his job after last year if not for financial obstacles. There were three years left on his contract and Georgia Tech isn’t quite flush with disposable income.
The Jackets are still making annual $900,000 payments to former coach Paul Hewitt for, I believe, another 137 years. Firing Gregory would’ve been like you and I trying to buy a third house when we’re still making mortgage payments on the first two.
Tech started 7-2, better than expected, including wins over Tennessee, Arkansas and VCU. But it would be surprising to see them carry that success when conference play starts. (Start playing “Taps” Jan. 2: at North Carolina.) If the Jackets finish anywhere close to their 3-15 ACC record of a year ago, Gregory likely is done.
Fox is set up for more success. He has a better team and a conference schedule that doesn’t include Tobacco Road. He needs to make the most of this season, especially with the firing of Mark Richt affirming where athletic director Greg McGarity’s bar for success is, even if this is basketball and not football.
Had the Dogs lost this game again, more people would’ve looked at Fox sideways. Gregory said Tech “took great pride” in beating Georgia four straight. “Their last graduating class had never beaten us. This (Georgia) class is a proud class with (Mann and Gaines), so we knew they would be ready to go.”
Gregory added some spice to rivalry last March. Georgia earned an NCAA tournament bid and was matched against Michigan State, where Gregory was an assistant. He remains friends with head coach Tom Izzo.
When the bracket came out, Izzo predictably phoned Gregory. At the time, Gregory mused, “There’s a lot of green blood in my veins.” And later, “You can quote me: I gave him (Izzo) everything.”
The comments irritated Fox. He returned subtle fire in a news conference the next day, saying of Michigan State, “They have had a lot of success … so I’m sure coach Izzo knows how to prepare his team. I’m not sure Tech has had the same success.”
Gregory downplayed the comments Saturday. He said he and Fox spoke during the summer and the Michigan State comments “never came up.”
Fox had an opening Saturday to say, “Gregory should’ve phoned Izzo for advice on beating us.” He passed.
But he has the makings of an excellent team. Georgia already has three losses but all three came to pretty good teams: UT-Chattanooga (17th in RPI), Seton Hall (48th) and Kansas State (49th). If the Dogs play their conference schedule like they did Saturday, they will command more attention.
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