The thought occurred — or, to be accurate, recurred — last night: Georgia can look awful for long stretches of games until desperation takes hold, at which time Georgia can look pretty darn good. I think of the LSU game, when the Bulldogs trailed by 14 points with 2:18 remaining and by 11 with 46 seconds left but had a chance to tie/win. (Wrong man took the final shot, alas.)
Something similar — way worse, but similar — happened at Auburn. Georgia trailed the SEC’s second-lousiest team by 16 at the half and by nine with 45 seconds left and nearly had a shot to tie. (Up by three, Auburn fouled with 1.8 seconds remaining. Smart move.) That wasn’t entirely unlike the NCAA tournament game of last March, when the Bulldogs trailed Michigan State by 13 at halftime and by 11 with 77 seconds to go and cut it to three before Denzel Valentine’s six free throws sealed it.
Yeah, I know: Three games is a small sample size. Weird things can happen in endgame situations. (This was true in college basketball even before the shot clock and the 3-pointer. See “North Carolina-Duke, 1974.”) Still, what happened last night and before last night got me to wondering: If Georgia is so effective in scramble mode, why doesn’t it play that way more often?
Yeah, I know: You can’t jack 3-pointers on every possession. (Although Golden State kind of does, does it not?) But Georgia starts three guards — two seniors and a junior — and smallish teams tend to be quick. So why do the Bulldogs play so deliberately?
Just for fun, I checked: In first halves of SEC games, they’ve averaged 30.1 points; in second halves, they’ve averaged 36.9. Only three times over those 15 games has Georgia scored more points in the first 20 minutes than in the second, and some of the splits have been wild. At LSU: 30 in the first half, 55 in the second. At Auburn: 23 in the first, 58 in the second. Versus Tennessee: 28, then 53. At Missouri: 22, then 38.
We stipulate that Georgia is a very good defensive team (seventh nationally in field-goal percentage against) and a halting offensive one (266th in field-goal percentage), so this is surely Mark Fox’s way of playing to his strength. But should his team’s weakness be so pronounced? Again: Three seasoned starting guards, plus a post presence in Yante Maten. You can build a working offense around less than that. In seasons past, Fox has. Just not this season.
Back to those plodding starts: In 15 conference games, Georgia has failed to break 30 points in the first half seven times. That’s not such a smallish sample. Neither is this: The Bulldogs are averaging 69 points per game; they averaged 68.2 last season, 68.9 the year before. Apparently this is how Fox wants to play. Difference was, each of his past two teams won 20-plus games. This one is 14-12 (7-8 in SEC play) with three regular-season games left. This one should have been the best of the lot.
The point being: There’s a difference between coaching and overcoaching. I’m not sure Georgia needs to be playing games in the 60s. It doesn’t have great talent, but neither does Kennesaw State — and the Owls average 72.5 points under Al Skinner and mustered 101 against North Florida, the Atlantic Sun leader, and 90 against Jacksonville two days later. When I see Georgia’s Kenny Gaines and J.J. Frazier going wild at the end of losing games, I wonder: Why didn’t they do that sooner?
Before Lexington Lafayette played Franklin County for the 11th Region title in 1979 — bear with me; I’m flashing back to my days covering Kentucky high schools — Jock Sutherland, who coached top-ranked Lafayette, gave this pregame talk: “If we were playing this game at Douglass Park (meaning outdoors) and there were no coaches, no refs, no nothing … who would win?”
Said Dirk Minniefield, soon to be named the state’s Mr. Basketball: “We’d kill ’em.”
End of discussion. Lafayette won big that night and, a week later, won the state championship. That little lesson has stuck with me: Just as a coach can elevate a team, he can also get in the way. There have been seasons when Mark Fox has absolutely elevated the Georgia Bulldogs. This isn’t among them.
Further reading: In Year 7, what are we to make of Mark Fox?