There is one team Frank Martin consistently has trouble coaching into disruption.
As South Carolina’s head coach, Martin continually finds it difficult to defend one particular team’s offensive sets while scoring against its stingy defense. No, it’s not Kentucky. It’s not even Florida.
The program Martin has the most trouble with almost every year, he says, is Georgia. When Martin wants to take a Georgia shooter out of the game-plan, he said that particular player usually still gets his fair share of open looks.
Martin believes it is testament to Georgia head coach Mark Fox, who he said doesn’t get the “credit he deserves for how good a coach he is.”
“Georgia’s as well-coached a team I’ve played against during my five years in the SEC,” Martin said. “We can get people out of character. We’ve never been able to get Georgia out of character.”
But results do matter and Georgia lost both of its games to South Carolina last season. The Bulldogs also lost three times to Kentucky and twice to Florida.
The failure of securing a marquee victory helped keep Georgia out of the NCAA Tournament for a second consecutive year.
This past season, the SEC got five teams into the NCAA Tournament, with Arkansas and Vanderbilt joining South Carolina (Final Four), Kentucky (Elite Eight) and Florida (Elite Eight). Georgia was considered a bubble team for much of the back half of the season, although one that needed to do a decent amount of work to sneak in.
Compounding matters is that Martin, who has been in the SEC three fewer years than Fox, now has a Final Four on his résumé. Florida head coach Mike White reached the Elite Eight in only his second season with the Gators.
But while it dropped seven SEC games to Elite Eight or Final Four teams – and another non-conference one to Kansas – Georgia was incredibly competitive in five of the those losses. Both games against South Carolina were one-possession contests. Georgia’s road trip to Florida ended in overtime following a great chance to win in regulation. The Bulldogs had Kentucky on the ropes at both Rupp Arena and Stegeman Coliseum.
Fox doesn’t think his program is long off from joining the conference’s best with an NCAA Tournament run of its own.
“Obviously, we don’t feel like we’re far away,” Fox said. “We had some games last year that had some close finishes where we didn’t win and we’re disappointed in that. Now we got to work to be a couple of possessions better. The great thing is our locker room understands how to win. Now, we have to keep pushing and hopefully knock that door down one day.”
Georgia returns nine of its top 10 scorers from last year’s team, including senior forward Yante Maten. The Bulldogs will add top-50 forward Rayshaun Hammonds, with the young Norcross standout figuring to factor in Georgia’s rotation early.
Kentucky head coach John Calipari noted how close the Bulldogs are to breaking through, considering how tough the two teams’ regular-season games were a season ago.
“They should’ve beat us twice last year,” Calipari said. “And then it’s an easy run (in the NCAA Tournament). We would have been on a tougher run ourselves but they should’ve beat us twice. They had us.”
Said Martin: “(Fox) just has to get in. If he gets in, he’ll be fine. If you told me there’s a team in this league we didn’t have to schedule, I’d say I don’t want to play Georgia.”
Fox’s Georgia teams have reached the NCAA Tournament twice in eight seasons. Both trips ended in first-round defeats. That hasn’t gone over well with a vocal portion of the Georgia fan base, which has made its concerns known publicly.
At the same time, Georgia concluded this past season with a postseason banquet attended by more donors than the program has seen in previous years.
“I think what I maybe said a year ago is we know there is another level,” Fox said. “Now that we have a healthy team, we know there is another level to get to. I never put a timetable on how long it would take to take that step. Everybody wants it to happen yesterday, not tomorrow.”
Fox is certainly aware of those who aren’t happy with the previous two seasons at Georgia. So while he has drastically improved a team that was in the SEC’s cellar in 2009, Fox understands expectations have since heightened.
“We’re more driven inside our program than any outside opinion,” Fox said. “I appreciate the fact we now have interest. That’s great. When I started we didn’t hardly have any. The first Bulldog Club I went to, my first offseason, I got zero questions. I was taken aback. I thought, ‘We have a long way to go.’ Now we have interest. That’s very healthy.”