Mailbag: Basketball angst, Recruiting angst

semerson@macon.comJanuary 16, 2013 

A funny thing happened on the way to our normal football-centric mailbag: The basketball team happened. And many of you are very worried and concerned about it. And justly so:

Do you think that Coach Fox has had enough time to field a competitive team year in and year out? Although it would be nice, I’m not concerned with making the NCAA’s every year, but I would think that we would consistently be competitive within the SEC every year, but this has not been the case. We seem to miss out on every, single major recruit with the exception of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Coach Fox was very successful prior to coming to UGA, but has only had 1 good year at UGA with Coach Felton’s recruits. What do you think is the problem? Does UGA just not have the facilities and history to draw any good recruits to UGA or is it Coach Fox?
- Jon Pruett, Kathleen

Could Mark Fox get fired this year? I know McGarity has said he likes the direction of the program, but Fox is about to have his third losing season in four years in one of the worst basketball conferences in America. His only solid season was the product of having two sensational players Dennis Felton recruited in Travis Leslie and Trey Thompkins. I don't doubt Fox is a great tactician, but with all his recruiting failures at Georgia, how can he not be on the hot seat right now? The program is an absolute joke.
- Brandon Zimmerman, Charlotte, N.C.

Seth- love your stuff. Wanted your view on Fox/UGA hoops and do you think he will given this year and next from AD and administration? Or are we at significant improvement needed from now till March?
- Frederick, from Memphis, Tenn.

I hate to sound like the pitchfork and torch mob, but, seriously, what is the argument for keeping Mark Fox as the coach of the Georgia basketball team? We are four years in now and Fox is going to have 3 losing years in 4 years. Recruiting is terrible, and the team isn't just losing but it looks lost. I know Georgia has no real strong history of basketball success, but all we really need is a coach who can come in and keep some of the players in Atlanta in state to be a team competing for NCAA bids. Honestly I feel awful for KCP for having to be on this awful team.
- Bryan Grantham

Deep breath. OK … To be honest, there’s part of me that doesn’t want to engage in this yet, with two months left in the season. But the interest in this subject is apparently widespread enough that it warrants it. So I’ll dive in.

Certainly, if it were up to the fans who tweet at me after losses, and fans on message boards, Fox would be on a very hot seat. But the decision isn’t theirs. It’s Greg McGarity’s, with input from other decision-makers.

It’s McGarity’s job to look at the situation from a long-term, and less emotional, standpoint. He’s not going to look at it in black-and-white terms, in terms of winning seasons and losing seasons. He has to look at it in terms of who is the best coach to lead the Georgia basketball program next year and beyond: Mark Fox, or the best person he is likely to get to replace Fox? It’s easy for fans to say: Fire the current coach and go hire Coach A, or Coach B, or Coach C. But McGarity has to realistically decide whether replacing Fox will result in an upgrade. He also has to consider whether firing Fox and starting over again would be better than letting Fox ride it out with the players he has recruited.

I’m not defending Fox – that’s not my job – but the following are factors in his favor, which McGarity will consider: Fox has run the program (from all indications) in a clean manner; players aren’t getting in trouble; Fox just two years ago got an at-large NCAA tournament berth (which hadn’t been done at Georgia in nine years); and while recruiting up to now hasn’t been great, he did get Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and at Nevada recruited a couple future NBA players. Plus, Billy Donovan thinks Fox is a good coach, and Donovan’s word clearly carries a lot of weight with McGarity. And for what it’s worth, Mark Richt is also a big Fox fan – as Richt felt the need to tweet the other day.

I’ve said for a long time – going back to prior to last season – that I felt Year 5 was the make-or-break one for Fox. Could it get so bad this year – arguably it already is - to hasten that? I’ve learned in this business to never say never. I also know that during a season – especially basketball, where the postseason process still gives everyone a chance – a school like Georgia is not going to telegraph its intentions to make a coaching change.

But I do think McGarity’s overall confidence in Fox is strong, I know McGarity has already ridden it out with Mark Richt’s hot seat status and it turned out well. And he knows replacing Fox means starting over and probably a couple more seasons of stinking. So let me put it this way: I believe that for McGarity to fire Fox at the end of this season, McGarity would have to change his mind. I can't actually read McGarity's mind, but that's my read on the situation.

Now a question more on this year’s team:

Despite losing Gerald Robinson and Dustin Ware, I thought we were going to be improved overall as a team, and that KCP was going to play his natural position allowing him to really excel. We seem to have digressed. We appear to be a one man team, we look like we have thrown in the towel already. On the season for this youth movement, free throw percentage is more horrible than ever, we are losing to teams we should beat. And not making adjustments when the opponents start keying on KCP. I thought good coaches adjust to the personnel they are given. Fox doesn’t seem to be doing that.
- Robert K. Burnham

Last year, Fox and his staff knew the team would struggle. This year, they thought this team had a chance – not really to make the NCAA tournament, but to show some promise, to show it was building towards an NCAA team next year. So the immense struggles of this season have caught them by surprise.

The simplest explanation is the best one: Talent. Other than Caldwell-Pope, this team doesn’t have much right now, and it misses Robinson – a capable second scoring option – very, very much. So is it a case of Fox and his staff overrating their own talent? Perhaps. I think they also thought Marcus Thornton would finally be healthy, instead of verging on a wasted career. They thought Donte’ Williams and Nemanja Djurisic would take the next natural step, but instead both have almost regressed.

So the freshmen are now getting more playing time. My main criticism, just based on what I’ve seen in games, is that freshman guard Kenny Gaines and sophomore center John Cannon deserve more playing time. The other freshmen, small forward Brandon Morris and point guard Charles Mann, have shown some promise. So there very well may be a decent nucleus here, and in the second half of the season Fox will have to show that to be the case.

On an Xs and Os case, the half-court offense has been a mess. The inexperience at point guard is a big problem there, but so are the struggles of the post players. The Bulldogs have actually been pretty solid defensively, and should be turning that into more transition offense opportunities, but they’ve struggled to do that as well. As Caldwell-Pope kind of hinted in my story today, that reflects some tentativeness on the part of his supporting cast. Somebody on this team needs to decide they’re going to be the second option and run with it.

Looking at the different websites rankings for the top 10 players in the state of Georgia it is alarming how poorly we have done this year. I am not slamming the class by any means and am hoping our coaches are evaluating better than the services but with it being a loaded in state crop it's alarming how many top 10 guys will be headed out of state. Is this a trend or product of all the hot seat talk from early last season?
- Paul Beeson

Some of it may track back to the hot-seat talk, but keep in mind Georgia finished strongly in 2011 and 2012, and there’s a decent chance it does so again. Last year the Bulldogs reeled in arguably the top two players in the state of Georgia – Jordan Jenkins and Josh Havery-Clemons – in the final month of recruiting. This year, Montravius Adams, Rueben Foster and Alvin Kamara are all still on the table – and while DE Davin Bellamy is officially a Florida State commitment, he’s still considering Georgia. (Which means he’s not committed, but whatever.) All four of those players should be considered top 10 in the state of Georgia.

Plus, the Bulldogs already have quarterback Brice Ramsey, rated the nation’s No. 37 overall prospect by 247sports.com, and safety Tray Matthews, who is rated No. 99 on that same list. Both are Georgia products.

Finally, you can’t ignore the out-of-state talent in this and recent classes: Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall and John Theus last year, Tramel Terry this year. And Georgia is still very much in the running for Laremy Tunsil, who is now the No. 3 overall prospect in the nation, according to 247sports.com.

Honestly, you’re not the first person to write me worried about the state of recruiting, in terms of five-star talent from Georgia. I think a lot of this comes from Robert Nkemdiche. What people forget about him is that his family is originally from Nigeria and he feels no particular allegiance to Georgia. So it’s not like that’s a failure of the Bulldogs to lock down a home-grown kid.

I wanted to know how the recruiting numbers work when there are early departures to the NFL. UGA has Alec Ogletree, Jarvis Jones and Kwame Geathers declaring for the draft. That is three scholarships. Does this mean that Georgia can add three more recruits if they wanted to before National Signing Day? That would probably be an opportunity to get some under-the-radar recruits like Peyton Barber (who just got offered by Texas) or not have to worry about declining commitments like Kelsey Griffin. Of course, if Georgia had the same attrition like LSU having around 10 early departures and they could fill those spots, you are talking about half the football team being freshmen coming in. How does it work?
- Bryan Henderson

Two different numbers to remember: 85 and (I think) 34. The former is the scholarship limit for the team, the latter is the most recruits that Georgia can sign this year, at least according to my math. (The team signed 19 last year, three of whom enrolled early and thus can back-count to 2011, and nine of this year’s early enrollees can back-count to 2012. Thus 9 + 25 = 34.)

But the point may be moot because right now the 85 number is looming larger. By my count, Georgia has 54 players currently on the roster who were recruited to school on scholarship. (Update: I wrote 55, and a second later the Ken Malcome news was announced.) Seven more are walk-ons who have been awarded schollies (Blake Sailors, Brandon Harton, Luis Capella, Merritt Hall, Rhett McGowan, Connor Norman, Kosta Vavlas.)

So if they were to return to walk-on status, then Georgia would have room for 31 scholarship players. However, we all know that further attrition happens. I won’t speculate on further attrition, but it's not a reach to speculate that there will be more than just Malcome. The trick for Georgia is going to be signing more than 31 players on Feb. 6 if there hasn’t been attrition – which is why the team has been cagey about identifying a specific number it will sign. Mark Richt was asked about it before the bowl – before Jones and company declared for the draft – and back then Richt called it a “moving number.” And at this moment it’s still moving.

Well, it's time to bring up under-signing again. I fell like if under signing has hurt this team it will show up this upcoming season. We are going to be replacing a lot of good people on defense this go around and being short on talent could show is ugly head. Alabama, who we all know over signs, lost a lot of people from their Championship team last year and was able to repeat mostly because of an abundance of talent. I am not saying that over-signing is the thing to do, but under-signing is definitely not a good thing. I hope that this is not a problem, but if we have trouble on the defensive side of the ball this year, it is something to think about. We have a lot of holes to fill and I just hope we have enough SEC ready replacements ready to go. They are no off years in this conference.
- Larry W. Tucker

I’ve said and written that the under-signing and lack of scholarship players this year would not and then did not have an impact on the 2012 season. But you are correct, it could loom in 2013 – which is why the Bulldogs are doing their best to “over-sign” this time around.

(But one theme I’ve seen crop up that annoys me, because it’s incorrect, is that Georgia is “over-signing” because of some “loophole” in the SEC signing rules, initiated in 2011. That’s not the case: Georgia is signing more than 25 because it is getting players to enroll early and thus back-count to last year, when it under-signed. The spirit of the rule is that a team can only sign an average of 25 players every year – so 125 over a five-year period. And the rule is working. There is no loop-hole.)

Anyway, Larry, your concern about under-signing impacting the 2013 season will only come into being from a depth standpoint, as far as I can tell. I’ve still yet to see a name that Georgia could have signed but chose not to, or could have kept on the roster but chose not to, who would have been a key player: The only exceptions are guys that had to be dismissed for off-field transgressions: Nick Marshall, Chris Sanders, Isaiah Crowell, etc. Players who transferred, such as Derrick Lott and Jordan Love, probably wouldn’t have transferred if they thought they could start at Georgia.

And it’s fine and dandy to say Georgia should have signed more players – but then I need to hear specific players they should have signed.

It’s kind of like the “fire Mark Fox” brigade. OK, cool, but follow up with a realistic name to replace him who would be an automatic upgrade and worth blowing the program up for a few years. (And don’t give me Bruce Pearl or Bob Knight. I said “realistic.”)

Thoughts on Grantham being named as a DC candidate for Eagles on Eagles own website?
- @mlnga, via Twitter

Well, that’s a tad misleading: The Eagles’ web site briefly linked to a few reports – tweets, actually – that Grantham and Florida defensive coordinator Dan Quinn would be candidates. The item has since been deleted.

The main problem with all this is that when the report about Grantham and Quinn came out, the Eagles didn’t actually have a head coach yet. So I wouldn’t really put much stock in it, at least at this point.

Moving forward, it shouldn’t be at all shocking that Grantham would be linked to an NFL defensive coordinator job – or that he would be interested. Let’s be honest, it would be a step up, and since his main goal is to be a head coach, it would be much easier to become one from the NFL level.

Perhaps Grantham comes out soon and issues a statement saying he’s proud to be at Georgia, in order to tamper any recruiting concerns. But honestly, I have a hard time seeing Grantham ever turning down a shot to be an NFL defensive coordinator. Just like I’d have a hard time turning down a job at the Washington Post. It shouldn’t worry Georgia fans that Grantham is being mentioned as a candidate. Given his background, it should worry them when he stops being mentioned. (And another year like 2012, and he’ll stop being mentioned.)

Are there any changes being made to the strength and conditioning/nutrition staff? Also, are there any changes being made to off season conditioning program?
- Patrick Lowe from Tybee Island, GA

The answer to both of those appear to be no. Nothing has been announced, and Richt said last week that mat drills were due to start on Feb. 1. I’m sure there will be some minor tweaks, but nothing major is foreseen.

I think Joe Tereshinski and the coaches like the impact that Sherman Armstrong had as the speed coach, as well as the contributions of John Thomas and others. Last year, if you’ll recall, there was major upheaval on the strength staff, but only because everyone who left got a better job. It would probably have to happen that way again.

We watched two rookie NFL QBs lead their teams into the playoffs with "read option" offenses that are modified college offenses. How does the successes of Robert Griffin and Russell Wilson reverberate in the college game?
- Josh Hancher, Griffin

That’s an interesting question, and I hope to explore it in the future. In the short term, I don’t expect Georgia or any programs committed to pro style offenses to change course. After all, Alabama is winning title after title with a pocket passer. Ultimately the impact will probably be more at the NFL level, with more teams adopting college-style offenses: That’s why Chip Kelly was sought after, and probably will be next year too. And I think it’s refreshing to see the NFL adopting less traditional offenses.

If you could improve things at Sanford Stadium, what would it be? Mine is to upgrade the 1985 TVs throughout the stadium.
- Bryan Hall, via Twitter

Well, I watch every game from the press box, and I’m not sure any of you care about the little upgrades they could make there. (Although the lack of mid-third quarter jello shooters should be of major concern to everyone.)

In terms of the fan experience, McGarity told me a couple weeks ago that they were looking at all possibilities, in order to combat the temptation from fans to enjoy the game better at home. One idea that struck me was having food and drink brought to fans in the stands, rather than fans having to wait in concession stands. Honestly, I hadn’t even realized that wasn’t an option now. So it makes sense.

(And no, food is not brought to us at our seats in the press box. At least during the game.)

Hey Seth, hope you're doing well. Question for the mailbag: at what point does the SEC dominance become so detrimental to nationwide interest in NCAA football that it ultimately hurts the SEC?
- Sam Irvin

The temptation is to say it won’t hurt the SEC, because the interest and passion in these parts is so massive that it won’t care about the interest level nationally. But my counter to that is that there were some good reasons that the SEC commissioner and presidents were out-front in pushing for a playoff: They’re savvy enough to know that being dominant in a strong product is much better than being dominant in a weaker one.

So should they be concerned about the national product being weakened? If the playoff weren’t coming, then I’d say it would be a more major concern. But the SEC’s dominance is a huge reason the Big Ten and Pac-12 finally relented: They realized they needed it to get their foot back in the door. And eventually if two SEC teams are getting into the four-team playoff every year, I think you’ll see the field grow to eight.

As long as every other (major) conference feels they have a chance, I think college football will be fine. The SEC will just become the Yankees of the Joe DiMaggio/Mickey Mantle era. And that era didn’t hurt baseball.

Follow Seth Emerson at @sethemerson.

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