COLUMBIA, S.C. — Taken by itself, Georgia’s loss here on Saturday wouldn’t have been anything to be too down about. The Bulldogs lost by two points on the road to the No. 19 team in the country.
Given everything else, however — the recent run of tough losses, a season that has become a bitter disappointment, and the fact the opponent was South Carolina, a similar-type program — the frustration was evident in the faces and tones of Georgia’s coach and players after its 77-75 loss.
“We’ve had four one-possession losses here,” coach Mark Fox said. “I feel for our young people. But we’ve got to find a way to make one more play and one less mistake, and keep competing. Certainly it’s been frustrating for our team.”
“As a competitor I don’t like to lose,” said senior guard J.J. Frazier. “So as the leader of the team I’ve got to somehow get it behind me. But I’m frustrated.”
In its last four road games, Georgia has now lost by one on a controversial clock malfunction (at Texas A&M), by two at South Carolina, and in overtime at Florida and Kentucky. Throw in the loss at Oakland (Mich.) in December, or the seven-point home loss to Marquette earlier that month, or the six-point home loss to South Carolina last month …
This season has just been a bear. Georgia has played one of the tougher schedules in the country (rated No. 26 as of Saturday) and is outscoring opponents by an average of 3.5 points per game. All in all, it’s played well enough to have a much better record and be in much better shape.
But the bottom line is the bottom line, and Georgia’s record (13-10) is not good enough right now, and barring a strong run down the stretch, Mark Fox is likely to miss the NCAA tournament for the sixth time in his eight years at Georgia. The NIT isn’t even a given at this point.
Fox has the program on sound footing overall, given the school’s rather meager basketball history. But he is not blameless. Blowing so many late leads falls at least partially on the coach. The team doesn’t have enough outside shooting, and while it would seem freshman Tyree Crump could help that, he can’t get off the bench. In the large view, this was a team set up to be pretty good this year because of its top two players returning. The record should be better.
South Carolina coach Frank Martin did volunteer a defense of Fox on Saturday.
“They’re good. Mark does a great job,” Martin said. “Read their accomplishments in his time at Georgia, and it’s better than at any other time at Georgia.”
That may not be completely accurate, but Fox does have three straight 20-win seasons entering this year, which was unprecedented. And for all the disappointment about the bottom line, you’re talking about a Georgia program with only five NCAA tournament wins in its history, and only seven if you count the vacated ones.
But Fox doesn’t have any NCAA wins at this point, and hasn’t been able to get that kind of breakthrough win that gives fans a reason to be very proud. They’ve been close, achingly close. But they haven’t done it.
There was a contrast in programs on Saturday. South Carolina, whose basketball history is even worse — it hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since the early 1970s — had a sold-out gym. Its fans chanted the name of a basketball recruit who was at the game. (Could you imagine Georgia fans doing that at a basketball game? For a basketball recruit, not a football recruit?)
Martin has certainly turned around South Carolina, which would lead Georgia fans to naturally wonder why they couldn’t get a coach like that. Well, to be fair ,South Carolina lucked into Martin, who was desperate to get away from Kansas State five years ago, and South Carolina happened to have an opening. And it’s only now, in Martin’s fifth year, that the Gamecocks finally look NCAA-bound.
“You beat a top 50 RPI team in February, you did something right,” Martin said.
He was talking about Georgia, which was actually No. 51 entering the day. Its computer numbers continue to be nice, thanks to Fox’s scheduling. And of its 10 losses, only one (the 20-point home loss to Alabama) has truly been an embarrassment. If two or three of the recent losses had been flipped — which they very well could have — the feeling right now is completely different.
But the record is what the record is. And there’s diminishing time for Fox and the Bulldogs to turn this season around, and make it feel like something different than a severe disappointment.