ATHENS — The positives about Mark Fox’s guidance of the Georgia men’s basketball program have been stated ad nauseum: Three straight 20-win seasons, three straight trips to the SEC tournament semifinals, four straight years finishing at least .500 in conference play.
Those are things that compare well with the program’s history, as Fox and Georgia athletics director Greg McGarity have both pointed out.
But is that the ceiling for Georgia basketball under Fox?
“I’m convinced that it’s not,” McGarity said. “Otherwise it’d be a different story line. I think everyone in the room could agree it’s just different. It feels different.”
McGarity spoke on Tuesday at a media session ostensibly called to wrap up the season, which finished with Georgia going 20-14 and exiting in the second round of the NIT. Fox spoke along with forward Yante Maten and guard J.J. Frazier, expected to be the cornerstones of next year’s team.
Then McGarity went last, issuing a very confident defense of Fox, who just finished his seventh season at Georgia.
“You want to see improvement every year. Like Mark said, our history is not really good. We’ve had buckets of success,” McGarity said. “What we’ve been able to do three years in a row, to be able to play on Saturday three years in a row in the SEC tournament, they’re sort of building blocks.
“I’m a patient person. With the leadership Mark provides in that area, the way he goes about so many things that you evaluate. And so we came up short this year. Nobody was happy not being in the show. A couple of close losses pretty early in the year probably set us back a bit that we weren’t able to overcome. But I think everybody felt a different vibe this year than in the past.”
McGarity pointed to “continuous improvement.” He cited the emergence of Frazier and Maten, flashes from freshmen forwards Derek Ogbeide and Mike Edwards, seeing four freshmen who can play at the SEC level, along with what McGarity sees as depth being built.
“Now we have a deep bench, we have some experience, some dynamic players that people will really enjoy watching play,” McGarity said. “J.J. has certainly injected a level of enthusiasm and his play has stepped up to another level. So a lot of good things are happening with our program right now.”
Fox has taken Georgia to the NCAA tournament twice in his seven seasons, including last year. Two trips to the NIT were sandwiched around that most recent trip.
“I think that we have an expectation to compete within this league, to try and get to the point where we can win a championship. We haven’t done that a lot in our history,” Fox said. “Can we change the historical timeline and roller coaster of our program? That’s a goal.”
Now Fox says the goal is “start swinging for the next level.”
“What was important to me was we had to establish really a healthy foundation in every part of our program,” Fox said, mentioning academics, and putting together a competitive team every year. “We had been at the bottom of the standings too often, so it was important for us to consistently make every part of the program healthy. So I think we’ve been able to do that.
“And now, because the foundation is in place, we can start swinging for the next level. That’s going to take lots of work, and we’re going to have to be motivated to work harder than we have ever before as coaches and players. I think the program’s now in position where we can try and take that next step.”
Next year’s team looks to have a shot, at least on paper. Maten and Frazier, the team’s two leading scorers this past season, form a solid inside-out combination. Ogbeide and Edwards also will help in the post. Turtle Jackson, a point guard who played sparingly this year, was a four-star recruit.
The team has signed two four-star guards, Tyree Crump and Jordan Harris. And Fox said the team will be “aggressive” in trying to add at least one more player.
“Our kids have an expectation to be successful within our locker room. That’s a culture change,” Fox said. “I think the guys that return expect to win, and obviously finishing like they did a year ago hopefully will give all those guys some confidence going forward. But it’s a new year, and we’ve already started our mental approach for next year. It starts with going back to work, rolling up our sleeves and putting the work in.”
As Fox spoke, McGarity watched a few steps away. When Fox’s media session was over, McGarity stepped in and made clear his optimism about this program.
“You’re seeing a lot of positive steps there,” he said. “We’ve just got to go out and win some games now.”