Mark Fox has coached four teams to the NCAA tournament as head coach at Nevada and now Georgia.
Georgia basketball coach Fox adds current Georgia team among his favorites that he's guided
This season’s Bulldogs are fighting to be the fifth, but even if they don’t reach that milestone, this team will be remembered fondly by Fox.
The fifth-year Georgia coach has always considered his first Nevada team, which reached the NCAA tournament second round, as one of the favorite teams he’s guided.
These Bulldogs have joined that team as one that he’s enjoyed going through the ride with, Fox said Monday.
“I compare a lot of my teams to my first team, which I thought was really a group of overachievers… and were just a joy to coach,” Fox said.
That 2004-05 Nevada team was picked to finish fourth in the Western Athletic Conference but won the league and beat Texas in the first round of the NCAA tournament before losing to top-ranked Illinois.
This Georgia team can certainly be called overachievers, too. It was pegged in the preseason for 11th in the Southeastern Conference and tied Kentucky for second. Georgia is the No. 3 seed in this week’s SEC tournament and plays a quarterfinal game Friday night at about 9:30 p.m. in the Georgia Dome after earning a double-bye.
“It’s been just as much fun to coach,” Fox said. “These guys have been a real joy, and I look forward to seeing them every day. They enjoy each other, and I think throughout the season whether it would be success or failures, they’ve tried to use the experience to grow as people and as a team and so from that standpoint it’s been a process that we’ve all enjoyed.”
Georgia (18-12, 12-6 SEC) had its best SEC finish since going 13-5 and winning the SEC championship in 1990. Its 12 conference wins tied for the second most in the 81 years the program has been in the SEC.
Georgia was pegged to finish in the bottom four of the league, which would have meant playing this week on Wednesday.
The media got right that South Carolina, Mississippi State and Auburn would be in the back of the pack, but Georgia ended up in the top tier with powerhouse programs Florida and Kentucky.
Georgia won four SEC road games this year under Fox—the same number it won the previous two seasons combined—including 68-61 Saturday at LSU.
“What he’s done and how they’ve played and to go on the road and win a game that matters – that game mattered – it just tells a lot,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said.
Fox said he surveyed his team’s tournament profile for the first time on Sunday.
Georgia, of course, will earn an automatic NCAA tournament bid by winning three games in Atlanta.
“I don’t know if we’ll have to win it, but it sure takes the stress out of it if you do,” Fox said.
Jerry Palm, bracket expert from CBSSports.com, said the Bulldogs will need to cut down the nets in Atlanta to reach the NCAA field. They will play Friday against Ole Miss, Vanderbilt or Mississippi State and could then face Kentucky and Florida.
“They need to win,” Palm said. “They’re not an at-large. They’ve got way too many bad losses. There’s nothing for them as an at-large.”
Georgia is No. 73 in the NCAA official RPI on Monday.
Palm said he’d be surprised if Georgia already isn’t in the NIT (NYCbuckets.com projects Georgia as a No. 4 seed in the 32-team NIT field), but an 0-6 record against top 50 teams and five losses to teams rated 110 or lower are hurting Georgia for an NCAA bid.
Even so, fellow SEC coaches were singing Fox’s praises on Monday.
“Mark doesn’t get the credit that he deserves,” said South Carolina coach Frank Martin. “We’re in a business where everyone wants that instant gratification. Let me tell you something—Mark has built a program there. Mark has a system in place. He’s got young kids that are becoming grownups as we watch them and I think he’s the essence of the strength of our league.
Fox won the WAC coach of the year three times from 2005-07 and his name has come up now for SEC coach of the year honors, but Florida’s Billy Donovan has to be considered the favorite when the award is announced today.
Donovan is drawing mention for national coach of the year after top-ranked Florida became the first SEC team to ever finish 18-0 in league play, but the work that Fox has done with the Bulldogs hasn’t gone unnoticed by his peers.
“I think Mark and his staff did an outstanding job of getting that team to understand who they were,” said Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy. “I think they were 6-6 in the non-league. When you do that, and not many people are giving them much hope of moving up the standings once they get into league play, credit to Mark and his staff. They looked in the mirror and made the necessary adjustments as to who they were and their best chance to be successful. They maximized that by having an outstanding run in our league. They’re playing as well as anybody with a hard-fought win at LSU on the last game. I’m sure they’re playing with a lot of momentum and a lot of confidence.”