This UGA season hasn’t been Mark Fox’s best work

Georgia coach Mark Fox reacts to a play Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016, during the second half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Auburn on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016, in Auburn, Ala. (Julie Bennett/AL.com via AP)

“Touchdown, Auburn!” Or something like that. (Julie Bennett/AL.com via AP)

The thought occurred – or, to be accurate, recurred – last night: Georgia can look awful for long stretches of games until desperation takes hold, at which time Georgia can look pretty darn good. I think of the LSU game, when the Bulldogs trailed by 14 points with 2:18 remaining and by 11 with 46 seconds left but had a chance to tie/win. (Wrong man took the final shot, alas.)

Something similar – way worse, but similar – happened at Auburn. Georgia trailed the SEC’s second-lousiest team by 16 at the half and by nine with 45 seconds left and nearly had a shot to tie. (Up by three, Auburn fouled with 1.8 seconds remaining. Smart move.) That wasn’t entirely unlike the NCAA tournament game of last March, when the Bulldogs trailed Michigan State by 13 at halftime and by 11 with 77 seconds to go and cut it to three before Denzel Valentine’s six free throws sealed it.

Yeah, I know: Three games = small sample size. Weird things can happen in endgame situations. (This was true in college basketball even before the shot clock and the 3-pointer. See “North Carolina-Duke, 1974.”) Still, what happened last night and before last night got me to wondering If Georgia is so effective in scramble mode, why doesn’t it play that way more often?

Yeah, I know: You can’t jack 3-pointers on every possession. (Although Golden State kind of does, does it not?) But Georgia starts three guards – two seniors and a junior – and smallish teams tend to be quick. So why do the Bulldogs play so deliberately?

Just for fun, I checked: In first halves of SEC games, they’ve averaged 30.1 points; in second halves, they’ve averaged 36.9. Only three times over those 15 games has Georgia scored more points in the first 20 minutes than in the second, and some of the splits have been wild. At LSU: 30 in the first half, 55 in the second. At Auburn: 23 in the first, 58 in the second. Versus Tennessee: 28, then 53. At Missouri: 22, then 38.

We stipulate that Georgia is a very good defensive team (seventh nationally in field-goal percentage against) and a halting offensive one (266th in field-goal percentage), so this is surely Mark Fox’s way of playing to his strength. But should his team’s weakness be so pronounced? Again: Three seasoned starting guards, plus a post presence in Yante Maten. You can build a working offense around less than that. In seasons past, Fox has. Just not this season.

Back to those plodding starts: In 15 conference games, Georgia has failed to break 30 points in the first half seven times. That’s not such a smallish sample. Neither is this: The Bulldogs are averaging 69 points per game; they averaged 68.2 last season, 68.9 the year before. Apparently this is how Fox wants to play. Difference was, each of his past two teams won 20-plus games. This one is 14-12 (7-8 in SEC play) with three regular-season games left. This one should have been the best of the lot.

The point being: There’s a difference between coaching and overcoaching. I’m not sure Georgia needs to be playing games in the 60s. It doesn’t have great talent, but neither does Kennesaw State – and the Owls average 72.5 points under Al Skinner and mustered 101 against North Florida, the Atlantic Sun leader, and 90 against Jacksonville two days later. When I see Georgia’s Kenny Gaines and J.J. Frazier going wild at the end of losing games, I wonder: Why didn’t they do that sooner?

Before Lexington Lafayette played Franklin County for the 11th Region title in 1979 – bear with me; I’m flashing back to my days covering Kentucky high schools – Jock Sutherland, who coached top-ranked Lafayette, gave this pregame talk: “If we were playing this game at Douglass Park (meaning outdoors) and there were no coaches, no refs, no nothing … who would win?”

Said Dirk Minniefield, soon to be named the state’s Mr. Basketball: “We’d kill ’em.”

End of discussion. Lafayette won big that night and, a week later, won the state championship. That little lesson has stuck with me: Just as a coach can elevate a team, he can also get in the way. There have been seasons when Mark Fox has absolutely elevated the Georgia Bulldogs. This isn’t among them.

Further reading: In Year 7, what are we to make of Mark Fox?

Reader Comments 0

7 comments
Rabun Dawg
Rabun Dawg

This team is painful to watch, as it gets so far behind and then does get in catch-up mode but too far down to get all the way back. Why such poor execution in the first half is a mystery, but let's face it, this team is not very talented. Why CMF plays Kessler is beyond me as he does not score, doesn"t rebound and is a turnover machine, just a body out there that really gets in the way. Until any coach can get better talent to Athens, UGA will always be irrelevant in basketball. I doubt many on this team could even make a 15 man squad @ places like UK, UNC, Duke, Kansas and the like.

UnbiasedObserver
UnbiasedObserver

Anybody with half sense can see Mark Fox is taking UGA nowhere.

Until UGA gets fully committed to being great, nothing will change.

BigMikeyDawg
BigMikeyDawg

I do not understand Coach Fox's substitutions.  For whatever reason, he rarely leaves a rotation in long enough to establish a consistent rhythm or flow.  And I don't know what has happened to Charles Mann.  For a senior with a great deal of experience, his play this year has been mundane at best.

dawg fan
dawg fan

Yeah but he's a really really nice guy and represents the university well. If you get rid of him who will you hire?  Be careful what you wish for.

GeorgeJetsen
GeorgeJetsen

Why does it always take 9 years of lackluster results for coaches in this state to ever be called out?  It's been obvious to everyone but the blinded faithful that UGA basketball has been irrelevant in the SEC and nationally since 2003 when Jim Harrick cooked his own goose.  If I was a UGA alumnus I'd be beyond upset about this and would demand accountability and change from the UGA executives responsible.   Hard to believe that a school of UGA's pedigree located in a recruiting hotbed could produce such poor results year after year.  Just like UGA football, the basketball program is in long need of a major overhaul to have any chance of getting onto the right track.

Stinger2
Stinger2

So, if he has not elevated them and is "in the way" as you implied, what should he do to get out of the way? Just let them run and gun the whole game?  I believe they would not be able to keep such pace and would tire in the 2nd half. 

Rabun Dawg
Rabun Dawg

@Stinger2  Well whatever Fox is doing now is not working, so maybe let them play playground ball for a half and see what happens.