Mark Fox leaned against a wall in Washington, D.C., late on the night of Jan. 3 and did his best to grit through an interview about another loss. He declined to talk about the big picture, which looked impossibly bleak. He also didn’t volunteer that at that moment he knew his father was dying.
Instead, all Fox would say was the painfully obvious, “We’ve got to figure out how to get better. Not to avoid your question, but that’s what I’m concerned about. We’ve learned that over the non-conference about ourselves.”
This is the moment, after a loss at George Washington that dropped the Bulldogs to 6-6, that I keep coming back to now. Fox and his team on the ropes, little hope for the present or future. An NBA scout at the game told me he thought Georgia’s talent was “a glorified Division II team.”
The next two months set up to be a death march.
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Everything changed five days after that night, when Georgia went into Missouri and pulled off a stunning win to open SEC play. What ensued has been nothing short of remarkable, with the Bulldogs finishing tied for second in the SEC -- the same 12-6 record as Kentucky, most definitely not a glorified Division II team. The run has restored hope to Georgia’s program, turned Fox from the hot seat to a coach-of-the-year candidate and made this week’s SEC tournament in Atlanta a lot more interesting.
And it’s almost a shame, really.
Georgia almost certainly will have to win the whole thing in Atlanta to get an NCAA tournament bid, thanks to its poor non-conference play. Regrets, oh this team has more than a few.
Georgia’s current RPI rank is 72. That’s a huge leap from two months ago (266 entering the Missouri game) but still not adequate enough for NCAA consideration, given the rest of its resume. But what if Georgia had flipped a few of its games?
The three worst losses on Georgia’s resume are to Georgia Tech, Temple and Auburn. The wonderful website RPIforecast.com projects that if those three games were victories, Georgia’s current RPI rank would be 37 -- right in the sweet spot for an NCAA bid.
But this SEC run isn’t a waste. Far from it. Instead, it provides immense hope for next year and possibly beyond.
Were this run just with a senior-laden team, this season would be cause for restrained enthusiasm. But this was not supposed to be the year for this program, especially after Kentavious Caldwell-Pope turned pro. The brightest lights on this team -- guards Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines -- are sophomores who aren’t going pro. The only senior is Donte’ Williams, a starter who will be missed, but he’s not indispensible.
The play of Marcus Thornton, a junior forward, has been the biggest key to the turnaround. When Fox talked about needing to get better that night in Washington, he probably didn’t even know he was about to get a fantastic two months from the oft-injured Thornton, who was recruited by Kentucky.
The result has been rarefied air for a team that once seemed headed nowhere:
It’s the first time in 12 years that Georgia has had a bye in the SEC tournament, period.
The 12 SEC wins are the most for Georgia since 1990, when it won the SEC championship. That also came in an 18-game season.
Four road wins, capped by a victory at LSU, a tough place to play.
The feeling around the Georgia program has changed completely. A day before Saturday’s LSU game, Gaines and teammate Nemanja Djurisic were fooling around with a microphone, and Gaines pretended to beat box. Fox, standing across the room, smiled.
It’s still possible Georgia could finish with a thud, going one-and-out in Atlanta and then in the NIT. But even if that happened, the heavy lifting already has been done. The confidence outside -- and whether they admit it, inside -- the program has been restored.
Back to that night in Washington. Gaines also spoke to the media after that loss, and he was asked about the impending start of conference play
“It is a chance to wipe the slate clean,” Gaines said.
At the time, it seemed like wishful thinking.
As it turned out, Gaines was perfectly prescient. The slate was wiped clean, and now this Georgia program has the most wanted of commodities.
Contact Seth Emerson at firstname.lastname@example.org