When Georgia and Georgia Tech met for a basketball game in December – the only rivalry where those in attendance often feel compelled to cover their faces, periodically peeking between fingers to see if it’s safe to watch – it was not ballet. Not even clogging. With one clog.
Neither team looked great. But Georgia won easily and suggested there might be something to look forward to in March. After the game, Bulldogs coach Mark Fox said this: “An ACC win on the road will look good on our resume.”
What he did not know is that win would look better than almost anything else on Georgia’s resume. Because, yech.
Welcome to early February. If you’re a Georgia fan, keep your faces covered. The Dogs are 4-7 in the SEC, 13-11 overall — several furlongs from even the NCAA tournament bubble. They’ve lost five straight conference games and six of seven. After a recent home defeat to Florida, during which Georgia was outscored on its home court in the second half 37-27, Fox was moved to say, “Our team’s not playing well, and that blame lies with me.”
Nobody stood up to object.
Go ahead — blame the wayward clock at Texas A&M, blame bad luck in close losses, talk about how much better the team may be next season. Know what? Coach Mark Fox should be past that by now.
This is Fox’s eighth season. Should it end with only two tournament bids on his resume … well, that’s not good enough. To suggest that the final seven regular season games and the SEC tournament might define his future in Athens would not be a reach.
Meanwhile, there is … Georgia Tech?
The Jackets are 5-6 in the ACC and 14-10 overall. Maybe these are not banner-hanging numbers, but against the backdrop of what first-year coach Josh Pastner inherited — nothing — they should be. When former athletic director Mike Bobinski hired Pastner, he told him, “You may not win a conference game next season.” It was one of the few things that came out of Bobinski’s mouth that nobody could dispute.
Odds also are against the Jackets making the NCAA tournament. But the mere fact I felt compelled to ask Pastner about that possibility and he didn’t fall on the floor laughing says something.
“To even be talking about something like that is sort of surreal, considering from my perspective where we started back in April,” Pastner said. “We’ve become a good team. This is my eighth year as a head coach and this has been, if not the most gratifying, just the most fun.”
The Jackets have had four monumental upset wins: North Carolina (No. 4 in RPI rankings), Florida State (6), Virginia Commonwealth (27), Notre Dame (28). After the Notre Dame game, Pastner accepted congratulations from athletic director Todd Stansbury and said he told him, “This was supposed to happen in Year 4, not Year 1.”
This has happened despite a roster that their coach breaks down this way: “We don’t have one guy who can lock somebody down defensively or go get us a win offensively. We have to do it as a team. If we don’t, then it’s a disaster.”
Also: “We don’t have isolation plays.”
Tech plays hard enough and together enough to scare any opponent. They don’t seem to care that they’re not supposed to be this competitive or this good. This is not the team you want to play in the ACC tournament.
Josh Pastner has overachieved in Year 1.
Mark Fox has underachieved in Year 8.
Either coach would need a strong finish to make it into the NCAA field. But Georgia was expected to be in the conversation and Tech was expected to be adrift.
Tech needs players. Tech needs shooters. Tech ranks last in the ACC in scoring (68.2), field goal percentage (.435), last in three-point shooting (.350). It has won games in part because they all realize there’s no go-to guy so they just keep passing the ball into somebody is open, ranking sixth in the conference in assists (15.4). The Jackets have gotten career seasons from Quinton Stevens, Ben Lammers and others, and a strong freshman campaign from guard Josh Okogie, the team’s leading scorer.
“There were zero expectations coming into the season, from media, from my bosses, from the fans,” Pastner said. “We had an opportunity to fly under the radar and try to build something from ground zero. Every huddle, every timeout, they’re locked into what I’m saying. When one of our guys falls on the floor, we have four guys run to him like Usain Bolt to pick him up.”
Recruiting ultimately will determine whether Pastner builds a strong foundation for the program. But big wins against improbable odds get attention, particularly in the ACC. In some ways, the lack of expectations has worked to Pastner’s advantage. His players have fed off of it.
“It’s kept them on edge,” he said. “I constantly remind them of that – that we’re a better team when we have an edge.”
Tech and Georgia are both stories, but only one for the right reasons.