Long-time colleagues Fox and Johnson meet head-to-head for third time

Mention LSU to Georgia freshman forward Nemanja Djurisic and what pops into his head isn’t the connection between the schools’ head coaches, but the Tigers’ superstar from 1989-92.

Long-time colleagues Fox and Johnson meet head-to-head for third time
Marc Weiszer

“I just know Shaquille O’Neal played there,” said Djurisic, a native of Montenegro. “That’s all I know.”

The storyline of two close friends who worked side by side on the same coaching staffs at Nevada and Washington may be less prominent as Georgia’s Mark Fox and LSU’s Trent Johnson prepare for their teams to go up against each other again, but it hasn’t exactly gone away, either.

Senior guard Dustin Ware said Fox informed the younger players on the team this week about his coaching and personal history with Johnson, something Djurisic actually remembered after his Shaq reference.

The third meeting between their teams — LSU won 50-48 in 2010 and Georgia 73-53 in 2011 — is more about getting another win in Southeastern Conference play.

“It’s the next game on the schedule, but also it’s tough,” said Johnson. “Make no mistake about it just because I know how important it is to him, and I’m pretty sure he knows how important it is to me in terms of competing. We spent a lot of time together. … I like playing people that I don’t like as opposed to people I have a lot of respect for.”

Fox served as associate coach under Johnson at Nevada from 2000-04 where they earned back-to-back NCAA tournament berths before succeeding him. Both were on staff at Washington from 1991-93. That’s where Johnson introduced Fox to his wife Cindy.

The two talk during the season about once a week and their wives also keep in touch.

“It’s hard to play people that are family,” Fox said.

As far as the teams on the court, Fox said Georgia and LSU have “more than the usual common threads.”

Said Ware: “It’s very similar. It almost looks like ourselves in a lot of ways.”

Fox said their friendship “won’t be an issue during the game” because they’ll be “just trying to beat each other’s brains in” like they did 20 years ago when they played against each other in physical basketball games at the rec center at Washington.

While LSU (16-10, 6-6 SEC) has put itself in position to perhaps reach the NIT, Georgia (12-14, 3-9 SEC) is on a two-game losing slide after putting together back-to-back wins.

Johnson coached in the SEC a year before Fox after arriving from Stanford.

“He told me you’ve got your hands full for a while,” Fox said. “I knew that.”

This would appear to be the best shot for a Bulldogs win in the next three games because No. 12 Florida and No. 1 Kentucky await on deck.

Johnson can relate to what Fox is dealing with this season.

After all, LSU went 2-14 and 3-13 in conference play the past two seasons, finishing last in the SEC West before the league went to one division for basketball.

“I think he’s done an exceptional job when you start looking at how young they are and what they lost in terms of probably 75 percent of their scoring, if not more,” Johnson said. “And who they played, beat Notre Dame, playing Cal, playing Cincinnati, Kentucky twice, Vanderbilt twice, Florida twice, you go on down the line. Watching them play Vandy Sunday, in terms of how hard they play, the amount of shots they got in areas where they could have scored. Anybody who knows basketball, they look at that team and they know, those kids are playing their tails off.”

Fox was just as complimentary about Johnson’s program for the values he perceives his former boss has instilled there.

“I would probably bet the house that they’ve got things in order in their locker room and they’ve got a culture of accountability on and off the court,” Fox said. “That’s probably why they’re starting to have success.”

Georgia at LSU

WHEN/WHERE: 8 p.m. today/Pete Maravich Center, Baton Rouge, La.

TV/RADIO: Peachtree-TV/AM 1340-WGAU.

RECORDS: Georgia (12-14, 3-9 SEC); LSU (16-10, 6-6).

PROBABLE STARTERS: Georgia — G Dustin Ware (Sr., 5-11, 172, 8.1 ppg, 2.2 apg); G Gerald Robinson (Sr., 6-1, 180, 14.1 ppg, 3.7 apg); G/F Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (Fr., 6-5, 200, 13.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg); F Marcus Thornton (So., 6-7, 235, 2.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg); F/C Donte’ Williams (So., 6-9, 220, 7.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg). LSU — G Anthony Hickey (Fr., 5-11, 182, 9.8 ppg, 3.9 apg); G Andre Stringer (So., 5-9, 178, 10.1 ppg, 2.1 rpg); G Ralston Turner (So., 6-6, 205, 8.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg); F Storm Warren (Sr., 6-7, 230, 8.9 ppg, 7.0 rpg); C Justin Hamilton (Jr., 7-0, 260, 13.9 ppg, 7.2 rpg).

SERIES: LSU leads 60-41. The Tigers lead 33-12 in Baton Rouge.

LAST MEETING: Georgia routed the Tigers 73-53 on March 2, 2011, on the Bulldogs’ senior night. Robinson scored 16 points to lead four players in double figures as the Bulldogs’ notched their 20th win.

SEASON AT A GLANCE: LSU got its first road win of the season Saturday with a 69-58 win at South Carolina. The Tigers, tied for fourth in the SEC, have won three straight and four of their last five after standing at 2-5 in the SEC following a 24-point home loss to Kentucky on Jan. 28. Georgia has lost six of its last eight games, including two straight to fall to two games below .500 for the second time this season. The Bulldogs, a game ahead of last-place South Carolina, dropped a 61-52 decision at home to Vanderbilt on Sunday. The Commodores hit 10 3-pointers while the Bulldogs were 3 of 23.

NOTEWORTHY: Robinson has overtaken Caldwell-Pope as Georgia’s leading scorer. Caldwell-Pope has scored in single digits the past two games. … LSU is 10-3 at home, including 5-1 in conference games. … Hamilton, seventh in the SEC in rebounding and 11th in scoring, is in his first season with the Tigers after transferring from Iowa State. He is shooting 52.5 percent from the field, fifth in the SEC. … Georgia’s Donte’ Williams had a career-high five blocks against Vanderbilt.