A coach who reaches his seventh season at a given school is, almost by definition, a coach who has passed the audition. If he hadn’t, he’d be gone. By Year 7, we should know what to make of a coach. Through 24 games of his seventh Georgia season, what should we make of Mark Fox?
Word association. You say, “Mark Fox.” My reflex response: “Good coach.” Then I note that his Bulldogs have reached the NCAA tournament twice, both times as a No. 10 seed, the trips coming four years apart. Georgia lost its first game both times. Georgia’s only postseason victory under Fox was against Vermont in the NIT.
Over six full seasons and 24 games, Georgia is 57-56 in SEC play. It has been ranked in the Associated Press poll once – at No. 24 the week of Jan. 10, 2011. Fox has signed one McDonald’s All-American. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope stayed two years and was the 2013-14 SEC player of the year. The Bulldogs had losing records in both seasons with KCP, an NBA lottery pick.
If the 2016 NCAA tournament began today, Georgia wouldn’t be participating. Its RPI of 74 is 25 spots too high for reasonable at-large consideration. It has played seven games against teams in the top 50. It has won one. According to RPI, the Bulldogs have faced the nation’s 24th-toughest schedule. Their third-best victory was against No. 85 Georgia Tech.
Off the empirical evidence, is Fox a Good Coach? Georgia is in better shape than when he arrived, but he succeeded Dennis Felton, whose task was to restore credibility to a program that removed itself from the 2003 SEC and NCAA tournaments due to Tony Cole’s allegations against the Jim Harrick regime. Fox wasn’t the guy who inherited a program bound for NCAA probation. He was the guy who followed that guy.
It would be wrong to say that Fox has failed. His teams have been competitive in league play. It would also be wrong to call him a raging success. Since 2011, when Georgia made the NCAA field mostly with Felton’s holdovers, Fox’s teams have lost to Youngstown State, Southern Miss, South Florida, Iona, Davidson, George Washington, Louisiana Tech and Chattanooga. From 2011-12 through last season, the Bulldogs were 0-4 against Georgia Tech and Brian Gregory. (They did beat the Yellow Jackets in December.)
Georgia is 7-6 in SEC play but 1-5 against teams above .500 in the league standings. It lost by 34 points to Texas A&M and Kentucky. It managed 48 points (making 11 baskets) last week in Rupp Arena. In losing to Florida at Stegeman Coliseum on Tuesday, the Bulldogs mustered 53 points.
Fox’s team defends well, usually a sign of coaching. Per Ken Pomeroy’s analytics, Georgia ranks 16th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. It is, however, 203rd in adjusted offense. This with two senior guards who’ve started since they were sophomores. This with Fox having had six years to install his system and stock players to fit it.
And there’s the rub. According to 247 Sports’ composite ratings, Fox’s full signing classes have ranked 71st, 32nd, 56th, 67th, 96th and 57th nationally. (Rated 46th, the 2016 class includes two 4-star signees.) If we go by those tepid numbers, Georgia has won at a higher rate than its talent might suggest. But why should the flagship university of a state that produces bountiful basketball talent make do with tepid talent?
It’s sometimes said that Fox doesn’t like recruiting AAU players. Well, Kenny Gaines and Marcus Thornton played for the Georgia Stars, Charles Mann for Southern Select, J.J. Frazier for the South Georgia Kings, Caldwell-Pope for the Georgia Blazers. Assistant coach Jonas Hayes found Yante Maten playing AAU ball in Michigan. The point being: Almost every player on scholarship at a mid-major or above played AAU ball.
If a major-college coach can’t make some sort of peace with the AAU – and the AAU is mighty in this state – he’s not apt to win anything of consequence. After six seasons and 24 games of a seventh, that’s the curious ground Mark Fox occupies. He has won enough to keep his job, which isn’t to say he has won enough.