As noted, I don’t expect Georgia to fire — or seriously consider firing — Mark Fox. As noted there and also here, I’m among the many who consider him a good coach. Were the Bulldogs to dump him, I believe they’d struggle to find anybody as skilled. And I’m not, I confess, someone who usually believes the difficulty in finding a successor is much of a reason to hew to the status quo. But Fox is a weird case.
Forget what John Calipari said about Fox: Winning coaches are always lavish in their praise for losing coaches, sometimes because they’re afraid if they don’t say something the losing school will make a change and won’t lose as much. (Rick Pitino called Brian Gregory, formerly of Georgia Tech, one of the 15 best coaches in the country; Gregory might have been the 15th-best coach in the ACC.) But I’ve heard enough from neutral observers and seen enough with these eyes to know that Fox knows his business.
I’m also enough of a pragmatist to concede that being clever counts for nothing if you can’t win. Fox has won just enough to keep his job. He has taken Georgia to the NCAA tournament twice — once in 2011 with mostly Dennis Felton’s holdovers when the Bulldogs lost narrowly to Isaiah Thomas and Washington, again in 2015 when they were narrow losers to Denzel Valentine’s Michigan State.
Fox has never taken Georgia to the SEC tournament final. (He’s good at getting to the semis, though.) Of his eight victories over ranked teams, three came in his first season here. His winning percentage against ranked opponents is .178, which does prompt the question: Shouldn’t a good coach in a major conference beat somebody of consequence more often that that?
The answer is yes. This is basketball, not football. Upsets happen all the time. (Check Josh Pastner’s recent work at Tech.) One player can change the face of a program, which is why Fox’s claim that he needed extra time to right Georgia is laughable. Were the Bulldogs on probation when he arrived? No. Felton had taken that hit. Had they gone a decade without sniffing the NCAA tournament? No. They went in 2001 and 2002 under Jim Harrick and would have gone in 2003 had Tony Cole not talked to ESPN. Felton’s team went in 2008, albeit in the wake of a tempest-tossed SEC tournament title.
A coach as sharp as Fox should have made Georgia better than this by now. Forget his 20-win seasons. With teams routinely playing 32-plus games, you can lose a dozen and still break 20 wins. The real measure is a season that ends with single-digit losses. Fox has had none of those at Georgia. (He had three at Reno.)
Here I pause to acknowledge the obvious: What I’ve just written makes a better case for dumping Fox than keeping him. (As noted, he’s an odd bird.) But I really think the chance of Greg McGarity finding someone demonstrably superior is small. SEC schools have been running through coaches like crazy, first going the hot-young-guy route, then trying the established-retread tack, and how many have much to show for it?
The SEC has sent only three teams to the NCAA tournament three times in four years. This year it will do well to get four. Kevin Stallings, one of the three SEC coaches to make the Dance last season, split Nashville for Pittsburgh immediately thereafter. For all the splash hires made the past few years — Bruce Pearl to Auburn, Ben Howland to Mississippi State, Avery Johnson to Alabama — only Frank Martin’s team figures to crack the field of 68, and Martin is in Year 5 at South Carolina.
Were Fox in the ACC, it’d be different. (He’d also be gone by now. ACC administrators don’t need to commission Mike Tranghese to take basketball seriously.) But his recruiting, always a weakness, has begun to tick upward. He’s coming close to the place where he might — might, I said — have players capable of doing what he needs them to do. Yes, it has taken longer for that to happen than it should have, but Georgia has invested eight years in the guy. At this late date, what’s one or two more?
I wish I could offer a more ringing endorsement, but I keep coming back to the play that decided Saturday’s frantic game against Kentucky. With the score tied inside the final 40 seconds, the Wildcats ran a second defender at J.J. Frazier, who’d scored 34 of the Bulldogs’ 75 points. (He would notch two more.) Frazier whipped the ball to a teammate, which made basketball and mathematical sense. Georgia was now playing 4-against-3, which should be an advantage.
The teammate Frazier found was Pape Diatta, a transfer from Southern Idaho who has started one Georgia game. This isn’t to say Diatta is a bad player — he scored nine points Saturday, his second-highest output of the season — but he averages 2.6 points. Of the Bulldogs on the floor, he was surely the one Kentucky hoped Frazier would find. Diatta moved toward the lane and rose to shoot. His attempt was blocked by the 6-foot-10 Bam Adebayo, one of the Wildcats’ many McDonald’s All-Americans.
De’Aaron Fox (another Mickey D’s man) grabbed the ball and, 65 feet from the goal, was bumped by Mike Edwards. Fox’s free throws put Kentucky ahead to stay. Georgia had made a sound basketball play only to be undone by it. I asked Mark Fox afterward if he’d rather Frazier had gone 1-on-2. (Yante Maten had been lost after 95 seconds, remember, and Derek Ogbeide had fouled out.) He said no. I wonder if he meant it.
The look on Fox’s face after the game was of weary resignation. His team had given a massive effort minus Maten and had a real chance to win. It just didn’t. That’s essentially the story of this season, and not just this season. It’s the story of Fox’s eight years.
Not since 2013 has Georgia been anything less than pretty good, but rarely has it been more. If I didn’t believe Fox can someday do better, I’d say McGarity should pull the plug. But I still think he can. Still, after almost eight full seasons of it not quite happening.