The first two times the Final Four was held in the Georgia Dome, there was a chance that a major local team could wind up there. Georgia made the 2002 field and Georgia Tech was invited in 2007. This time: No chance.
Tech hasn’t participated in the Big Dance since 2010 and has won two NCAA tournament games since its run to the 2004 Final Four. Georgia last made it in 2011 and has won one NCAA game since 1996, which was five coaches ago. Our question today: As March Madness rages around us, when can we expect Tech and/or Georgia again to partake?
The Bulldogs could make it next season. If Kentavious Caldwell-Pope stays, Georgia should be one of the SEC’s five best teams. If he leaves for the NBA, they might be the worst.
Mark Fox is about to enter his fifth year as Georgia’s coach. His record is 65-63. He has already had three losing seasons. Dennis Felton, Fox’s predecessor, had only two.
Fox took a team consisting mostly of Felton’s holdovers to the NCAA tournament in Year 2. He has not come close since. Fox landed Caldwell-Pope, the first McDonald’s All-American to sign with Georgia since Carlos Strong in 1992, and Caldwell-Pope just became the first Bulldog to be named SEC player of the year since Dominique Wilkins in 1981. But even KCP hasn’t had a catalytic effect.
Georgia began the regular season 2-7 and the conference season 1-4 and, even after a midseason surge, didn’t beat a team that cracked the NCAA’s field of 68. After the Bulldogs defeated Kentucky in the penultimate game of the regular season, Fox said: “We’ve got a pretty good little basketball team.”
The Bulldogs had become that at the end, but the beginning was so wretched as to render a real push undoable. And Fox’s good little team still finished 0-2, losing at Alabama on a half-court shot and to LSU in the SEC tournament after trailing by 20 points at the half.
Fox seems to know what he’s doing, but he still hasn’t found the players to execute the plan. There has been no recruiting coup save Caldwell-Pope. Three freshmen showed promise and sophomore Nemanja Djurisic had moments, but the cold truth was that Georgia took the best player in a tepid conference and lost 17 games. How many might it lose next season if Caldwell-Pope turns pro? Twenty? And if a coach is losing 20 games in Year 5, is it time to find a new coach?
The Bulldogs’ immediate future hinges entirely on Caldwell-Pope. Tech’s is less volatile. The Jackets won’t be great next season, but they should be good enough to win 20 games and play their way onto the NCAA tournament bubble. That would constitute another sign of progress.
Brian Gregory inherited a Tech program in awful shape. Paul Hewitt had had three losing seasons in four and the Jackets had to play the 2011-2012 season in borrowed buildings. Gregory’s first year was terrible, which was expected; his second was better, which was also expected. Tech went from 11-20 to 16-15. Now, as Gregory acknowledged after his Jackets were routed by Boston College in the ACC tournament, comes the tricky part. “Going from competitive to good is hard,” he said.
The Jackets started three freshmen and all are talented enough to develop into solid players but not so gifted they’re apt to leave early for the NBA. In the world of college basketball, that’s known as going the mid-major route: You get good-but-not-great players and let them grow together. Miami, which has no McDonald’s All-Americans, parlayed that method into an ACC title.
The catch is that Gregory hasn’t found the key piece on any college team — a true point guard. (Note how much Shane Larkin means to Miami.) Maybe Solomon Poole, who arrived highly regarded as a midseason enrollee but seemed lost, will become one in time. Maybe Travis Jorgensen, a three-star recruit from New Hampshire, will.
The other catch is that Tech finished ninth in an ACC that’s about to get bigger and better. The mid-major method worked for Miami, but will it work in a league that will welcome Syracuse, Pitt, Notre Dame and Louisville? Just being pretty good in a top-heavy ACC might not be enough to wangle an NCAA invite.
At this moment, Georgia is better positioned to reach the 2014 NCAA tournament than Tech. If Caldwell-Pope departs, Tech moves ahead in that two-horse race, which isn’t to say the Jackets would be a lock. Better days might well be ahead, but the state of Peach State basketball remains a rickety thing.