ATHENS – This was one of the good days. Georgia won a basketball game over an opponent with a better record. Home fans were happy. Mark Fox wasn’t apoplectic. Welcome to the aberration of the 2015-16 season.
“We’re just trying to make this group as good as we can,” Fox said after an 80-66 win over Mississippi. “Obviously we haven’t had as good a season as we did last year, or even the year before. But it’s not going to be rosy every day in this business.”
No. But the absence of a sense of doom would be nice.
Georgia made it to the NCAA tournament last season (losing to eventual Final Four team Michigan State) and there were expectations this season’s team would be back in the tournament this season. That’s an extreme longshot now, unless you’re anticipating an implausible run and an upset of Kentucky in the SEC tournament.
Fox points to some pre-season injuries that messed with the Bulldogs’ depth and anticipated rotations as reasons for this season’s fizzle. But that’s really no excuse for some of the Bulldogs’ performances this season, notably a loss at Auburn last Wednesday. Players looked flat, disinterested, defeated.
“I think our spirit was a little broken after losses to Florida and Vandy,” Fox said. “That’s no excuse for not playing well (at Auburn), but I just didn’t think we had the same vigor. We talked about dealing with adversity. Adversity is a part of life, and if you don’t want to deal with it now you never will.”
Nice speech. For once, it wasn’t lost in translation.
The Dogs didn’t face plant out of the gate, which has been a frequent problem this season. They played well defensively, crashed the boards, got strong performances from guards Kenny Gaines and J.J. Frazier -- 49 points, four steals and zero turnovers between them -- and committed only seven turnovers.
Georgia outscored Ole Miss 22-2 off turnovers and 19-7 in second-chance points. That’s about effort.
It doesn’t mean much in the big picture. Georgia (15-12, 8-8) is scrambling just to finish .500 in the conference and the best it can realistically hope for is an NIT invitation. The real question: Where are things headed under Fox? He’s a really good coach who has had a really bad year. This has been his worst of his seven seasons, given expectations and what he had returning (six players and three starters, including a pair of senior guards, Gaines and Charles Mann).
But it’s unlikely he is going to get fired, and I’m not sure that he should be.
Athletic director Greg McGarity issued his standard response Saturday when asked his view of Fox and the program: “Same answer I would give for tennis, golf, basketball, football. I don’t make any comments during the year.”
He pushed the button on the Mark Richt firing. That actually is one reason why Fox may be safe. To fire Fox would necessitate a $2.4 million buyout. That’s on top of the approximate $6.2 million Georgia is paying Richt and several former assistants who were let go after the football season. Even athletic departments flush with revenue don’t like spending $8.6 million on coaches to not coach.
It’s understandable why some fans want Fox out. He will have made the tournament only twice in seven seasons, which doesn’t suggest overwhelming success. But it’s important to remember the bag of manure he inherited post-Jim Harrick/Dennis Felton. That’s not an excuse to be used for eternity, but Fox has refused to kiss the recruiting vermin down at the AAU level, for which he has McGarity’s respect and support.
Also, Fox’s previous two teams went 23-13 in the SEC and had 20-plus wins overall. Only Tubby Smith accomplished the latter in Athens. (Jim Harrick would’ve gotten there if the school the school hadn’t to pull out of SEC and NCAA tournament play in 2003 in anticipation NCAA sanctions. But he also wouldn’t have won so many games if he hadn’t cheated.)
This season represents Fox’s first horrible step backwards. Yes, Georgia went from 21-12 with an NCAA berth in 2012 (Fox’s second year) to 15-17 the next two seasons. But as he said, referencing the unexpected defections of both Travis Leslie and Trey Thompkins to the pros, “When those guys went pro, we weren’t ready for that.”
As for this year, “Our expectation with this group was that we would have a chance in late February to do something, and we were in position to if we had beaten Florida or Vandy.”
Next year could be better. Next year should be better. Frazier, Yante Maten and the injured Juwan Parker will be back. A couple of top recruits will be coming in. Fox is optimistic.
“We can have a terrific young team,” he said.
At some point, words won’t be enough.
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