After early exit in NCAA tourney, Georgia still seeking breakthrough win under Fox

The Georgia Bulldogs hit the 20-win mark for the third time under coach Mark Fox this season.

Bob Donnan/Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Standing in a corner of Georgia’s locker room in Charlotte, coach Mark Fox found himself in a familiar setting. He’d been in that situation before: different roster and different circumstances, but similar conclusion.

"We played uphill. We played uphill, and that’s hard to do versus a good team," Fox told reporters following his team’s NCAA tournament loss to Michigan State on Friday afternoon, his second tourney appearance since taking over the program in 2009. " … We felt like we could still win the game until the bitter end."

Parallels litter Georgia’s 2011 and 2015 tournament runs under Mark Fox. The Bulldogs returned to Charlotte’s Time Warner Arena as a 21-win 10-seed. Power conference teams with efficient offenses (Washington, Michigan State) met them there. On both occasions an undersized guard — eventual NBA standout Isaiah Thomas for Washington, Travis Trice on Friday for Michigan State — proved to be their opponent’s catalyst. And, of course, the opening-round exit.

There has been significant progress, but it has yet to pay off on the game’s biggest stage.

To paraphrase Fox himself from a radio interview earlier in the week, at a certain point it isn’t about what you’re doing but what you’ve done. Juxtaposed with an underseeded Michigan State squad that practically has its name written in permanent marker in the 64-team field before any season begins (the Spartans own the nation’s third-longest streak of consecutive tourney appearances), the on-and-off Georgia program has more work to do.

This might not have been Fox’s most talented group, in terms of pro potential, but it was his best. The Bulldogs ranked 35th in overall efficiency entering the tournament, as opposed to the 2011 team that finished ranked 59th, and beat six top-50 KenPom teams. Nearly every one of their 12 losses were competitive.

They are still waiting on that moment, though.

The two biggest wins in the Fox era — beating a Final Four-bound Kentucky in 2011 and an Elite Eight-bound Florida in 2012 — sparked limited forward progress. Both victories were bookended by losses and Georgia still hasn’t made it to the first weekend in the Big Dance.

This is not necessarily a reflection on Fox. He got more out of his 2014-15 group than most expected. Led by a returning backcourt of Charles Mann, J.J. Frazier and Kenny Gaines, Georgia became more consistent, avoiding the bad losses that plagued it the previous two seasons. The 46-year-old has established a fundamentally-sound program that often overachieves given its personnel, even when faced with injuries, and competes with high-profile programs. Just looking at the efficiency rankings, this type of slow-broil improvement is obvious (Ken Pomeroy):

The Bulldogs have established themselves in the middle of the Southeastern Conference pack, pushing the Kentuckys and Floridas (aside from this season’s disappointing Gators team). Even in March Madness play, the Washington loss came down to a final 3-point heave from Travis Leslie and Friday’s Michigan State game was a one-possession affair with 20 seconds to go. They’ve been right on the cusp.

"I think I’ll always wonder (what our upside was) if we stayed healthy," Fox said. "Where it really impacted us was we really never became the offensive team we thought we could be because we always were missing a different part every couple of weeks. I thought it really impacted offensively more than defensively. But you’ll always wonder had we stayed healthy what we could have been."

In the grand scheme of things, these are relatively good times for Georgia basketball. Not exactly golden age, but good times.

Coming off the sanctions and lackluster nature of the Jim Harrick and Dennis Felton eras, respectively, Fox has the program back in a place it hasn’t been since, roughly speaking, Tubby Smith was still running the show in Athens. There’s not much history to live up to. Aside from the how-in-the-world-did-that-happen Final Four run in 1983, Georgia basketball has claimed just six NCAA tournament wins total. The last one came in 2002 against Murray State.

Fox is looking to change that as he moves into his seventh season at the helm, though merely reaching the tourney field is no small feat: Georgia has made just five appearances in the Big Dance this century. There have been a few signature wins and Fox has done well to rebuild the program in his image after losing NBA-bound talent.

True breakthroughs can only come in March, though. The Bulldogs are still working on that one.