DESTIN, Fla. – There’s no use dancing around the question anymore, so it was put directly to Mark Fox: What does he say to fans who worry that his Georgia basketball program has hit a ceiling, that Mark Fox can’t take the program any further?
Fox, began with a reflective answer, that gradually ratcheted up.
“I think maybe what I said a year ago is we know there’s another level,” said Fox, who is preparing to entering his ninth year at Georgia, with no victories in the NCAA tournament to show for it yet. “Now that we have a healthy team we know there’s another level to get to. I never put a timetable on how long it would take to take that step.
“Everybody wants that to happen yesterday. Not tomorrow. And we’re the same way as coaches. And we’re probably more driven – no we’re more driven inside our program than any outside opinion. And I appreciate the fact that now we have interest. I think that’s great.”
Fox’s performance has been a source of debate and angst this year, as the Bulldogs endured a disappointing season, failing to reach the NCAA tournament for a second straight year. The Bulldogs have made it twice in Fox’s tenure, most recently in 2015.
The successes of his tenure are evident, if overlooked: Winning overall and SEC records, at least 19 wins in four straight seasons, five straight seasons of at least a .500 record in SEC play. This after Fox inherited a losing team.
“I remember my first Bulldog Club event, nobody asked a question,” Fox said. “I was taken aback. I thought, we have a long way to go. Now we have interest, which is very healthy.”
But consistency has not led to larger success, or breakthrough victories. So the interest has been critical – especially in the face of success at another SEC program.
South Carolina, which hadn’t won even a single NCAA tournament game since 1973, made the Final Four this year. Frank Martin, the coach who led the Gamecocks to that breakthrough, came forcefully to Fox’s defense this week. He pointed specifically, as rival coaches usually do, to Fox’s coaching acumen.
“Georgia’s as well-coached a team as I’ve played in my five years in the SEC,” Martin said. “We can get people out of character. We’ve never been able to get Georgia out of character.”
What does that mean? Martin said that the players that Fox wants to shoot will get the shots, the defensive match-ups will stick, and they rebound well and are physical. In short, Martin said, they play the game the right way.
Martin praised Fox for holding Georgia together last season after star forward Yante Maten’s injury – they went 3-1 to finish the regular season after Maten got hurt. Martin also pointed out that Georgia lost to South Carolina and Florida twice this season. The Gators made the Elite Eight.
“I’m not trying to protect Mark. I wouldn’t say that if I didn’t mean it,” Martin said. “I think it’s unfair. We got an opportunity to get in the NCAA tournament and make a run. He just has to get in. If he gets in, he’ll be fine. If you told me there’s a team in my league I didn’t have to schedule, I’d say I don’t want to play Georgia. That’s how much respect I have for Mark and the way his teams play.”
Still, results are what Georgia fans want, and they saw South Carolina enjoy a magical run. Fox was asked if the Gamecocks’ success put any pressure on his team.
“I don’t think we look at their success and use it as any kind of evaluator. I think what we look at as the success of our teams in the postseason was this league was very good. As coaches last year we kept talking about how good the league was,” Fox said. “The performance of the team’s in the postseason just validated that.
“Obviously we don’t feel like we’re far away. We had some games last year that we had some close finishes where we didn’t win. We’re disappointed in that. Now we’ve got to work to get a couple possessions better. But the great thing is our locker room understands how to win. And now we’ve got to keep pushing and hopefully knock that door down one day.”