The Power 5 conferences include 65 basketball programs. If we add the Big East and the American, two leagues that have claimed NCAA titles this decade, the number grows to 89. Among those 89 coaches, 21 have worked for their current employer since the start of the 2009-2010 season.
Of those 21, seven have won national championships. Ten have taken teams to the Final Four. Fifteen have reached the Elite Eight. Eighteen have qualified for the Sweet 16. Twenty have won at least one NCAA tournament game in their current posting. The exception coaches the Georgia Bulldogs.
We’ve mentioned in the past that no major program would have stuck with Mark Fox as long as Georgia. The above constitutes something approaching proof. And here the Bulldogs are again, back on the NCAA bubble, still awaiting a sign that their faith will finally – finally! – be rewarded.
Let’s not confuse Mark Fox with Mark Richt, on whom Georgia pulled the plug after 15 good-but-not-quite-good-enough years. Richt won SEC titles in his second and fifth seasons. He won the East in his second, third and fifth seasons. (Fox hasn’t won or played for an SEC title.) Richt’s failure was never getting the Bulldogs to the BCS /CFP, both carrying tighter entrance requirements than the 68-team Big Dance. Fox has made the NCAA field twice – once with Dennis Felton’s remnants in 2011, again with a team of his own making in 2015. Both were No. 10 seeds. Both lost to No. 7s.
This is Fox’s ninth season. He was hired by Damon Evans on April 2, 2009 – two days after John Calipari left Memphis to take the Kentucky job. Fox has coached the Bulldogs longer than Tubby Smith, Ron Jirsa and Jim Harrick combined. Fox did not inherit a program coming off NCAA sanctions. (That chore fell to Felton.) His was a clean slate. Nearly nine years later, the slate remains unfilled with tangible achievements.
I concede that I’ve teetered back and forth (and forth and back) regarding Fox. I’ve gone from considering him a bad hire to a good coach whose time would inevitably come to a good coach hamstrung by tepid recruiting. Now I wonder just how good a coach he is.
The creative days of maximizing the drive-and-get-fouled talents of Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines are ancient history. Today we see a team that went 15 stupefying minutes without a basket at Auburn, a team that managed two points over the final 6 ½ minutes at Kansas State. We see a team that scored 19 baskets in a home loss to South Carolina and 20 in a road loss in Starkville. We see a team that, in Yante Maten, has the SEC’s leading scorer and maybe its player of the year – and ranks last in a 14-team conference in scoring.
Georgia has enough decent victories – over Saint Mary’s, Marquette, Temple, Alabama and Florida – to give it an NCAA chance. (Its RPI is 59.) But that, in a backhanded way, is another indictment: If you can play that well sometimes, why are you 13-9? Why aren’t you ascending in a league that has seen Kentucky slip and Florida disappoint and Auburn and Tennessee break upward? Why is a coach who, given the benefit of every doubt for eight seasons, is barely hanging on in Year 9?
Believe it or not, there’s a case for keeping Fox even if these Bulldogs land in the NIT for a third consecutive season. Georgia has received a commitment from point guard Ashton Hagans of Covington’s Newton High. He’s rated the nation’s No. 8 prospect for 2019 in 247 Sports’ composite index. His AAU coach told DawgNation that Hagans might reclassify – recruit-speak for “skip a year” – and become college-eligible for 2018-2019. That could make this recruiting class Fox’s best, admittedly against modest competition.
But here’s the thing: Fox tends to do less with more. He had Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – the SEC’s 2013 player of the year and the only one of Fox’s recruits to be an NBA draftee – for two seasons and didn’t make the NCAA field either time. Last year he had Maten and J.J. Frazier, two of the SEC’s five best players, and missed the Dance. He has Maten still. He also has Rayshaun Hammonds, the highest-rated Georgia signee since KCP; the freshman has scored five points in Georgia’s past four games, working a total of 13 minutes in the past two.
We’ve asked what might change if Georgia’s talent level ticked up a notch. From recent evidence, the answer appears to be, “Not much.” If anything, the Bulldogs have grown more ponderous. According to Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, Georgia is 337th – there are 351 Division 1 teams – in adjusted tempo. The Bulldogs do defend well, ranking ninth in field-goal percentage against, but there’s little about this program to suggest that staying the course for another year or another decade will yield radically different results.
Making the NCAA Tournament could buy Fox still another season. (The way Georgia operates, he might be handed a lifetime contract if he wins a First Four game.) But a coach who works for 8 ½ years free of restrictions without elevating a program beyond perennial bubble status hasn’t made a compelling case for continuing employment. If it hasn’t happened yet, it probably won’t.