For the record, Mark Fox is still Georgia’s coach. He might indeed be Georgia’s coach for the next decade, though it would be a major surprise if he makes it to the Ides of March. (His Bulldogs have lost their past three games by 15, 15 and 17 points. They haven’t led in February.) That in mind, we ask: What went wrong? And, as the obvious follow-up, what could the Bulldogs do to make basketball go right?
This was supposed to be Fox’s most talented team. What happened? It’s mismatched. There aren’t enough shooters. There’s no creator. The freshman wing Rayshaun Hammonds was billed as a difference-maker, but he has gone the way of many Fox frosh – he loses the coach’s trust, loses playing time and loses confidence.
The greater issue is FoxBall. Georgia’s pace of play ranks 339th among 351 Division I teams, per Ken Pomeroy’s data. We note that Virginia, just anointed No. 1 overall in the NCAA’s midseason tournament seedings, ranks dead last. If you plod well enough, it can work. Georgia plods without purpose. Its half-court sets against Auburn – that’s pretty much all the offense the Bulldogs got Saturday; they had four fast-break points – were turgid.
We’re now in the 32nd season of the 3-point shot. In 1986-87, Rick Pitino (Providence coach) and Billy Donovan (orchestrator) dragged college basketball into the Pace & Space era decades before the NBA made it a thing. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Georgia’s post-centric offense looks dated. And I say this as someone who loves post play.
So why did Fox’s way seem to work for a while? Think back to the 2013-14 season. After going 6-6 against non-league competition and all but playing its way off the NCAA bubble by New Year’s, Georgia went 12-6 in SEC regular-season play. That tied the Bulldogs for second place with Kentucky, which would play for the national championship.
Georgia wound up in the NIT and lost at home to Louisiana Tech in Round 2. The SEC sent only three teams to the Big Dance. Even in tying for second, Georgia took an 0-fer against NCAA qualifiers Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee. The Bulldogs did go 8-1 against Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State, Missouri and South Carolina.
Those teams were coached by Anthony Grant, Tony Barbee, Johnny Jones, Rick Ray, Frank Haith and Frank Martin. Only the latter is still in place; he just led South Carolina to the Final Four. The first five have been supplanted by Avery Johnson, Bruce Pearl, Will Wade, Ben Howland and Cuonzo Martin. The latter Martin exited Tennessee after the 2014 season and landed at Missouri after a stint at California; the Volunteers are coached by Rick Barnes.
Today’s SEC includes four coaches who have reached the Final Four; three more who’ve made the Elite Eight; another who has reached the Sweet 16 and still another who has worked the NBA finals. Tactically speaking, the league has upped its game. Fox can no longer just outcoach people.
What might this coaching shift say for a post-Fox Georgia? That the hot-mid-major guy isn’t the way to go. (Although Mike White, formerly of Louisiana Tech, took Florida to the Elite Eight last year.) Pearl had oncourt success at Tennessee before resurfacing at Auburn. Howland took UCLA to three consecutive Final Fours before alighting in Starkville. Barnes guided Clemson to the Sweet 16 and Texas to the Final Four. Frank Martin had an Elite Eight run at Kansas State. Cuonzo Martin led Tennessee to the Sweet 16.
Rather than dip into a shallow mid-major pool -- Steve Forbes of East Tennessee State might be a possibility, but he incurred an NCAA show-cause penalty as part of Pearl’s Tennessee staff -- Georgia would be advised to pursue someone with a history at a major program. Tom Crean, once of Marquette and more recently of Indiana, fits the profile. Thad Matta, recently of Ohio State, would merit a look if his back problems have abated. Worth a call: Danny Hurley, who’s winning big at Rhode Island of the Atlantic 10; he’s also an Eastern guy who might be ticketed for UConn.
What of Gregg Marshall? Or Chris Mack? Technically those men don’t work in Power 5 leagues, but coaching an American or Big East bellwether trumps playing little brother to Kirby Smart. Marshall makes $3.3 million at Wichita State, meaning the Bulldogs would have to double Fox’s salary to lure him away. Mack coaches at Xavier, a private school that doesn’t have football. Like Marshall, he fields offers every year. Both keep saying no.
What about the Coach K acolytes? Having done the major-college thing at Michigan, Tommy Amaker seems happy in the Ivy League. If he leaves Harvard – which is 12-11, FYI – it will be to succeed Mike Krzyzewski at Duke. Although Jeff Capel, who has secured commitments from the nation’s top three prospects for Duke to deploy next year, is the in-house leader in that heir-apparent clubhouse. As for Capel: He did listen to Georgia Tech two years ago, but that was an ACC job.
Didn’t Donovan work with Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity at Florida? Yes. He also makes $6 million per season coaching the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Should Georgia consider bumping up Jonas Hayes? The former Bulldog and twin brother of Jarvis is the reason for Georgia’s ramped-up recruiting. He found Yante Maten playing AAU ball in Michigan and is the primary recruiter on Ashton Hagans, the 5-star junior from Covington who has committed to the Bulldogs. Regarded in the industry as a rising star, Hayes – who’s 36 – hasn’t been a head coach. Then again, neither had Kirby Smart.