After the loss that most assumed was coming, after the exit from not merely the SEC tournament but likely every projected NCAA bracket written in a rose-colored marker and viewed through rose-colored Bulldogs shades, Mark Fox struggled to find a comfortable narrative.
Part of him wanted to debate. Asked why his team kept fouling in the final seconds of an imminent loss to Kentucky, he again recounted the broken-clock fiasco at Texas A&M: “We didn’t get to play till the clock hit zero at Texas A&M. That’s why we fouled to the bitter end.”
Part of him struggled to go all fire-and-brimstone raging at the possibility of Georgia’s NCAA tournament chances: “Our team has done enough to warrant very significant consideration.”
But not really.
Barring some unforeseen break of the bubble on Selection Sunday, let’s be clear about something: Georgia basketball failed this season.
Mark Fox had a team with two first-team All-SEC selections (Yante Maten and J.J. Frazier). But he likely is headed to the Golden Corral buffet of the postseason — the NIT. Not nearly good enough. He failed.
The Dogs didn’t fail this season because they lost to Kentucky 71-60 in their second game of the SEC tournament. They failed because, as a result of so many losses in games they could have won, they were in this unforgivable situation: They had to beat one of the nation’s top teams in a relative road game, in an arena blanketed with blue crazies, to get the NCAA committee’s attention.
Give Georgia the Texas A&M game. All that accomplishes is nice window dressing. The records go to 20-13 overall and 10-8 in the SEC. But one more conference win over a weak team with an RPI of 93 isn’t going to get it done. Win just one of those games that seemingly had been won — including two against Kentucky, one against Florida — and then we’ll talk.
A few players deflected afterward when asked if this season could be construed as a disappointment. Only Tyree Crump, the freshman guard who probably should’ve played more than he did this season, stepped up.
“Yes,” he said when asked if the season was a disappointment. “We know how bad we wanted to go to the tournament.”
Did you believe at the outset of the season the Dogs would be in the NCAA tournament?
“I thought we would,” he said.
Fox was extended a lifeline earlier in the week, when athletic director Greg McGarity issued a statement saying for the first time, “We look forward to Mark leading our program next year.”
It wasn’t quite an absolute declaration but it’s clear Fox isn’t getting fired. The only opening would be if another school tempted him with a five-year contract, given three remain on his deal at Georgia. But his exit still seems unlikely.
Fox wouldn’t declare this season a disappointment, yet.
“Let’s answer that after we find out what happens on Sunday,” he said while walking down a corridor in Bridgestone Arena.
Then paused, turned around, and said, “You know what? Unless you’re cutting down the nets, you probably always feel that way.”
Well, yes. But the bar isn’t set nearly that high right now. Just get into the tournament, which he has done only twice in eight years. Win a game, which he has never done.
To reaffirm, I’m not endorsing Fox’s firing, in part because recruiting has improved and three consecutive 20-win seasons at a hoops-starved school builds some credibility. But this season’s team underachieved. That’s on the head coach.
Kentucky coach John Calipari reiterated Friday that he believes the Bulldogs “deserve to be in the NCAA tournament.” But those statements ring hollow. Calipari naturally is going to wave the SEC’s flag to get as many conference teams in as possible, and Fox is a good guy whose team twice played Kentucky close.
But the reality is, the Dogs needed to win this game and that wasn’t going to happen. Kentucky’s defense was far superior to the first two meetings. Maten and Frazier were smothered, rarely getting open looks early.
Frazier’s first field goal didn’t come until four minutes remained in the first half. Maten’s first didn’t come until nearly four minutes into second half. The two shot a combined 7-for-28 from the floor. Georgia finished 19-for-57 (33 percent).
The Dogs never led. They were tied twice: 0-0 and 2-2. They trailed by double digits for all but 51 seconds of the second half. So much for drama.
“They tried to punk us and we started to fall into the turmoil of it early, and that put us in a hole, a hole we couldn’t climb out of,” Derek Ogbeide said.
“They hurt us, like little punctures, and we bled out.”
Fox tried to state Georgia’s case. But he understood the task in Friday’s game and somewhat acknowledged the odds.
“If we would have won the game, would I be sitting here thinking we were in better shape? Certainly,” he said.
But it never should have come down to this game.