What went wrong for Mark Fox at Georgia?

Mark Fox-Tyree Crump-Georgia basketball
Did Mark Fox (right) not play Tyree Crump enough over the past two years? It might have been a factor in Georgia not doing well enough to save Fox's job.

In a way, the legacy for Mark Fox as Georgia’s basketball coach cannot be written yet. It will be decided by the coach who replaces him.

If the next coach takes Georgia to a better level, as in regular NCAA Tournament appearances and winning games there, then Fox will be known as someone who was decent for Georgia but didn’t take the program as far as it should have gone. But if the next coach is a failure, and the program slips back to where it was before he arrived, then it will be written that Fox was never truly appreciated.

The high point of the Fox era came in Years 5 through 7, when Georgia had three straight 20-win seasons, three straight SEC semifinal appearances and made the NCAA Tournament once and the NIT twice.

It was at that point that the program could have taken off. Yante Maten was entering his junior year, and recruiting had really picked up. But the next two seasons were disappointments, and Fox’s tenure ended after nine years.

Fox leaves Georgia in better shape than he found it. That is inarguable. But why didn’t he take it further? Here are one beat writer’s thoughts:

1. Not recruiting enough 3-point shooters

Tyree Crump, the sharpshooting sophomore, was a rare exception. Fox put more of a premium on defense, which is admirable, but a few more good outside shooters really could have helped Georgia the past few years.

At the end of the game, the winner is decided by who has more points. When a team is not Kentucky and Florida, teams that regularly recruit 5-stars players, it needs to round out its team with good shooters, the type who can bail a team out of a bad possession or turn momentum by nailing a 3. Georgia didn’t have enough of those.

2. Not signing a graduate transfer or two, especially a veteran scorer

The grad transfer market blew up the past five years, but Georgia always passed. And Georgia really could have taken advantage: Each year it seemed to have a key scorer or two it needed to replace, whether it was J.J. Frazier this year, Kenny Gaines and Charles Mann two years ago, and even going back to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

Instead, the Bulldogs relied on developing their four-year players. And while Fox was good at doing that, it also meant some early bumps and key nonconference losses in many seasons.

3. Not playing Tyree Crump enough

You might notice a theme here: Crump, the team’s best pure shooter, played mostly off the bench the past two years. He drove Fox mad with his defense and did indeed lag in other parts of his game. But wow is he a good shooter, and the team needed that. Crump had a game-high 17 points in Fox’s last game as Georgia coach, as it turned out.

It also could be argued that Nicolas Claxton, who has good outside ability for someone who is 6-foot-11, could have either played more this season, or been set up for more 3s.

4. Point guard problems

Frazier’s departure was supposed to hurt Georgia mainly because of his scoring. But as it turns out, his ball-handling and command of the half-court offense was also missed. Turtle Jackson, a highly-touted point guard when Georgia lured him away from UConn three years ago, had a good start to this season as the starter, but struggled down the stretch. Freshman Teshaun Hightower has shown flashes this year, especially in the SEC Tournament, and could well be a starter under the next coach.

5. Not shortening the bench, and inconsistent substitution patterns

Georgia always seemed at its best when it was using fewer players: It beat LSU convincingly in late February when it only used eight players. And when Fox’s teams didn’t have depth — such as his second year — the Bulldogs still won a lot of games and made the NCAA Tournament.

But as the roster got deeper, more players were used, and that wasn’t always the right formula. Yes, players would be more fresh at the end of the game. But using more players, and more lineup combinations, seemed to hurt continuity and player rhythm.

Fans always railed at Fox’s seeming tendency to pull a player as soon as that player was getting hot. Sometimes there was a method to the madness and it worked. Sometimes it didn’t.

6. Lack of breakthrough wins

Imagine if Georgia had beaten Kentucky any number of times it was so close. Or finishing off Auburn on the road this year. Or Florida on the road last year. It’s a long list of near misses. Instead, Fox really lacked a signature win.

7. The SEC got better

Fox’s final season was a reversal of most of the rest of his tenure: Georgia usually would struggle in nonconference play and then turn it on when SEC play arrived. Some of that was UGA taking awhile to find its identity each season. Some of it was just because the conference wasn’t that strong.

That changed as more high-profile coaches — albeit some with questionable means of procuring players — entered the league. Bruce Pearl (Auburn) and Rick Barnes (Tennessee) have their teams in the top 20. Avery Johnson has Alabama back in the NCAA Tournament. A conference that was only getting three teams in some seasons could get nine this year.

Georgia will not be among them, despite starting the year 9-2, with good nonconference wins. But when SEC play began, the Bulldogs’ fortunes took a hit, and it ended up costing Fox his job.

UGA News