Towers’ Take: Nothing easy about the Mark Fox equation
ATHENS — Everywhere I went on Sunday, to church, to the grocery store, to Waffle House (hey, I’m a native Atlantan, come on!), people wanted to ask me two things: “Were you at the game last night?” and “What do you think about Mark Fox?”
“The game” was Georgia’s basketball tilt against Kentucky on Saturday night, and, yes, I was there. Awesome game, highly charged atmosphere, supremely competitive.
And, of course, the Bulldogs lost.
They lost the same way they’ve lost way too many times this season. They led late only to lose late. This time Georgia was up 2 inside the final 45 seconds. The final was 82-77, Kentucky.
At the final horn, I turned to a friend sitting next to me and said: “Well, seen that one before.”
And we all have. If you’ve been paying attention to Georgia basketball at all this season, you know the Bulldogs are 0-6 against the SEC’s top three teams: Kentucky, Florida and South Carolina. You also know that, for the most part, they were extremely competitive in those games. Really, they’ve been competitive in all but three games this season. Home losses to Alabama, Florida and Marquette weren’t particularly close.
But the rest of them? Barn-burners. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, they keep losing the barn.
- At home vs. South Carolina, the Bulldogs trailed by 1 with 36 seconds remaining. Georgia lost 67-61.
- At Florida, the Bulldogs were up 2 with 25 seconds to go. They lost in overtime.
- At Kentucky, UGA was up 2 with 10 ticks to go. They lost in overtime.
- At Texas A&M, Georgia was up by 9 with 1:45 remaining but lost 63-62 when the clock inexplicably stopped with 5.6 seconds left and the game was called.
This is officially a trend. And, really, it goes back to last season. Remember the Dogs leading the Wildcats by eight in the second half of the SEC Tournament semifinals? They lost by 13.
Of course, J.J. Frazier got hurt in that one. And Yante Maten got hurt in this one. Less than two minutes into Saturday’s contest, Georgia’s leading scorer and rebounder suffered a knee injury that will keep him out at least the remainder of the regular season. At least. That has to be taken into consideration.
Unless something miraculous happens during these last four games and the SEC Tournament, the Bulldogs are going to miss the NCAA Tournament for the sixth time in Fox’s eight seasons as head coach. Not good.
But I enumerate all that not necessarily to make a case that Georgia needs a head coaching change. This situation is way more complicated than that.
As I’ve pointed out many times, Fox is the only coach in UGA history to lead the program to three consecutive 20-win seasons. He’s had four seasons of 20 or more victories, which ties the number Hall of Fame coach Hugh Durham logged in 17. His teams have won 43 SEC games from 2013 to ’16, the winningest four-year conference stretch in school annals.
So when people were asking me Sunday what I thought about the Fox equation, I tended to ask them back, “Well, what do you think?”
And the answers tended to vary along the lines of age and perspective. In other words, those who were older and have been around a while and watched a lot of Georgia basketball over the years tended to side with keeping Fox. They know all too well how quickly these 20-win seasons can become 15- and 12- and 10-win seasons.
Younger fans, or those who view basketball merely as a momentary distraction from football, tend to say “fire him and start over. I’m tired of not making the tournament.”
But that’s the other part of the equation here. Administrators always have to take into consideration whom do you get to succeed. Now I’m not about to throw out any names, but it appears that LSU and Missouri could be in the market after the season. Regionally, NC State already is and, nationally, Indiana could be. There will be competition on that front, too.
And everybody heard Kentucky coach John Calipari’s rant singing Fox’s praises. That’s the refrain you’ll hear throughout coaching and in the broadcast industry. Everybody recognizes Fox as a good coach who does things the right way, graduates players and fields competitive teams. If it were as simple as fulfilling the college mission, we wouldn’t even be having a conversation regarding Fox.
But it’s not. Now it’s about big money and the insatiable desire for championships. Or at least tournaments, in the case of basketball.
There is also the consideration of the immediate future. Georgia loses only Frazier, its dynamo point guard, off this team. No small loss, for sure, but presumably everybody else is back, including Maten, arguably the best big man in the SEC. And the Bulldogs add Rayshaun Hammonds, a 4-star forward and top 100 national prospect.
We know they keep Hammonds if Fox returns. Can’t be sure if Georgia doesn’t keep Fox, and that’s another consideration.
It really is remarkably similar to the complexities that UGA athletic director Greg McGarity faced in evaluating Mark Richt the last few years. Obviously, that did not bode well for Richt, who was ultimately fired and is now at Miami.
McGarity is offering no hints.
“I evaluate programs at the end of every year,” he told me Monday. “That’s consistent with what I always say.”
Yes, it is. What he’ll do, I haven’t a clue. Whatever it is, you can be sure that about half the Bulldog Nation won’t like it.