Fox quickly rebuilding at Georgia
Mark Fox wasn’t immune to the whispers when he opted to re-locate to Athens, Ga., a little more than a year ago.
Fox was coming off a successful five-year stint as the head coach of the Nevada Wolf Pack, one which included a trio of NCAA tournament appearances. However, those in SEC country — and those in the coaching ranks — were skeptical if he could get it done down in Georgia.
This wasn’t the WAC.
Now, Fox was battling against the big boys: Kentucky’s John Calipari, Florida’s Billy Donovan and Tennessee’s Bruce Pearl.
But Fox wasn’t all that concerned.
He had recruited future pros, such as Ramon Sessions out of South Carolina and JaVelle McGee out of Chicago while at Nevada. He had helped convince Luke Babbitt to stay home instead of playing at Ohio State.
"I didn’t listen to any of it,” Fox said.
In order to succeed in Georgia, you need to make a living getting in-state kids to stay home. The area has been a hotbed for elite talent over the last few years with guys like Dwight Howard, Josh Smith, Derrick Favors, Javaris Crittenton and Louis Williams all calling Georgia home.
Fox was poked and prodded to hire someone on his staff with AAU ties to one of the summer programs — whether it be the high-powered Atlanta Celtics, the Georgia Stars or one of the other clubs that has burst on the scene of late.
That would certainly help him lure players to Athens.
It was the only way.
Fox didn’t listen.
It was considered career suicide for the new guy, the outsider, the coach who inherited a team that would be fortunate to win double-digit games in his first season.
His Bulldogs were picked by just about everyone to finish as the doormats in the SEC.
Dennis Felton, who was a lame duck the last two years of his tenure, left him with Howard “Trey” Thompkins and not much else.
In fact, it was so bad that former walk-on Ricky McPhee led the team in minutes in Fox’s rookie season in the SEC.
Talk about going into a gunfight without any bullets.
However, there was no disputing the fact that Fox can coach, and he showed it in the non-conference slate with wins against Illinois and in-state rival Georgia Tech.
Few noticed, though, because Georgia was irrelevant on the national radar.
But then came the near-win at Lexington against John Calipari’s powerful Kentucky squad, one that later boasted a handful of first-round draft picks.
Fox’s team then somehow pulled off wins against Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Florida.
The final record was hardly intimidating at 14-17 and the 5-11 SEC mark may not appear like much, but Fox earned respect in his league for his ability to coach a team that was outmatched just about every night.
The offseason would give Fox and his staff an opportunity to add much-needed depth. Georgia added Tennessee State combo guard Gerald Robinson a month after Fox got the job, but the Bulldogs missed out on most of their top targets — including in-state guard Jeremy Lamb, who signed with UConn, largely due to the fact Fox couldn’t make up ground so quickly.
Fox signed a junior college shooter, Sherrard Brantley, a few months ago, but that hardly qualified as a notch on his recruiting belt.
No one noticed.
But then Fox was able to land Georgia’s Mr. Basketball, Marcus Thornton, who re-opened his recruitment after the coaching change at Clemson and ultimately chose the Bulldogs over Texas, Georgia Tech and Alabama.
That commitment was important, but it still ranked as a distant second to what went down this past weekend.
That was when Greenville High (Ga.) wing Kentavious Caldwell pulled the trigger for Georgia.
Caldwell isn’t just the big-time wing scorer that Fox has been desperately searching for since he took over.
He’ll also give the program credibility.
Caldwell is ranked No. 13 in the entire country by Scout.com. He’s a future McDonald’s All-American and a kid who can, once again, make it cool to play basketball at Georgia.
Because that hasn’t been the case in a while.
But Fox has begun doing what every coach does when they inherit a downtrodden program: Changing the culture.
But he’ll have to do it without the athletic director that brought him on board.
Georgia AD Damon Evans was forced to resign last month after being charged with a DUI.
"His commitment to basketball was one of the reasons I came here,” Fox said. "He’s not here anymore, but our president is just as committed.”
Fox is optimistic about this year’s group now that he can go eight or even nine guys deep — and also has a guard who can make plays in Robinson.
He’s developed Travis Leslie from an undersized power forward into a wing who is now projected by some as a potential first-round NBA draft choice.
And he still has Thompkins, who is one of the top big men in the country.
"Last year, the guys accepted the fact it was a rebuilding year,” Fox said. "I’m not ready to say we’ve turned it around already.”
It’s certainly headed in that direction.