Just when the Georgia Bulldogs were finally coming together, they fell apart. They won two games in an SEC tournament that seemed to be breaking open. They edged Missouri, the local favorite, on Thursday. No. 1 seed Auburn had been ousted earlier Friday. If they could beat Kentucky, which was working without its best rebounder, in the quarterfinals … well, who knew where the weekend might lead?
What we know now is that Georgia’s mini-run here has ended, probably taking its coach down with it. There will be no NCAA tournament for these Bulldogs, meaning that a ninth season under Mark Fox will end with nary a victory in the Big Dance. If there was any doubt that two victories in this event presaged a revival for this coach and his team, this non-performance was a screeching demonstration of why such a surge is never going to happen.
Georgia scored 49 points, its lowest yield of a low-yield season. Yante Maten, the SEC player of the year, made two baskets. His teammates made 13. To be fair, Maten did seem to be slowed by something. (He admitted to having “a bruise.) But still: Kentucky’s double-teams chased the conference’s best low-post player out of the post. He finished with nine points, four rebounds.
The Bulldogs trailed by nine at the half and got no closer than seven thereafter. A Kentucky team that has been tepid by Big Blue standards could have named the score. In fact, it did -- 62-49, easy peasey.
Turtle Jackson had the ball stolen from him on Georgia’s third and fourth possessions. He would take 12 shots, missing 10 of his final 11. And yet, with 3:34 remaining and Georgia trailing by 12, the Bulldogs had a chance to run a play. They chose to put the ball in Jackson’s hands. He cut off a screen and threw the ball out of bounds.
Two minutes later, they ran essentially the same set. This time Tyree Crump threw the ball out of bounds.
Yes, Georgia was playing it third game in three days, Kentucky its first in seven. Yes, the Bulldogs’ victory over Missouri surely took a physical toll. But this would have been a terrible showing were the game part of a day-night doubleheader. Kentucky defended. Georgia succumbed. (It made 28.3 percent of its shots, also a seasonal nadir.) Not five minutes in, you were asking: What happened to the bodacious Bulldogs of Thursday afternoon?
Freshmen Teshaun Hightower and Nicolas Claxton, catalysts Thursday, were non-factors one day later. They each worked 18 minutes. They scored no baskets between them. Among Bulldogs, only Crump scored in double figures.
A day after showing it belonged on the same court as a massively talented Missouri team, Georgia appeared meek and overmatched. That is, sad to say, the way of Fox’s Bulldogs. They’ll look pretty good, and then they’ll look like they can’t catch fleas. This team was the tournament’s 12th seed a reason. It hadn’t won three consecutive games this calendar year. It was 11-3 on Jan. 6. It’s 18-15 now.
As has become his wont, Kentucky coach John Calipari offered an impassioned defense of Fox: “Our games against them, they’ve all been wars. I know how good a coach he is. He’s doing it the right way. I told him before the game, ‘I’d love for you to beat us and win this tournament and squelch all that speculation.’ ”
Then: “There’s a lot of stuff going on in college basketball. It’s not going on at Georgia. They’re in good hands. That has to mean something.”
It might, except that Fox has had nine seasons. No other coach in the biggest seven basketball conferences has been in place so long without winning an NCAA tournament game. His career SEC regular-season record is 77-79. He has never taken a team to the final of this event. He’s a good coach in the sense that he isn’t the world’s worst coach, but after nine years, is that anywhere near enough?
Outside the Georgia locker room, athletic director Greg McGarity was asked to assess his basketball program. “I just haven’t even thought about it,” he said.
This correspondent said, “I’m not sure that’s the truth.”
McGarity smiled. Then he said: “This is not the right moment.”
The belief around Georgia basketball for a month has been that the Bulldogs would have to make the NCAA field to save Fox’s job. They will not make the NCAA field. “I’m sure Greg and I will have conversations,” Fox said.
The guess is that one will come very soon. The guess is that this was the end. It needs to be the end.