Before three teams from the Southeastern Conference earned their spots in the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16, Georgia men’s basketball coach Mark Fox was asked whether the Bulldogs had a nucleus returning to reach that tournament next season.
“I think that we have enough back to make that a very realistic goal for this team,” Fox said. “We finally will return lots of productivity.”
Fox was speaking in a hallway in Stegeman Coliseum after Georgia’s season came to an end Saturday with a 79-71 loss to Louisiana Tech in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament, the Bulldogs’ first postseason appearance since the 2011 NCAA tournament.
Any postseason tournament this year seemed a longshot after Georgia stood at 6-6 entering SEC play after losing NBA lottery pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, but it finished the season 20-14.
“We played well, we played together,” forward Nemanja Djurisic said. “We proved a lot of people wrong.”
Georgia, a team picked to finish 11th in the league, tied Kentucky for second place at 12-6, equaling the second most wins in SEC play in program history.
“I thought that this team certainly made a lot of progress,” Fox said. “They were a lot more fun to coach than the NCAA team was, to be honest with you. They’re committed to doing it the right way. They’re committed to trying to win and get better, and our summer approach will be critical to how good next year’s team is.”
Georgia is set to return everybody except for forward Donte’ Williams, who averaged 4.9 points and 5.1 rebounds as a senior.
The Bulldogs will have arguably one of the better backcourts in the SEC in rising juniors Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines.
Gaines averaged 13 points per game and led the team with 57 3-pointers.
Mann was a second-team All-SEC pick by the coaches and led Georgia in scoring (13.9 points per game) and assists (2.9 per game), but the point guard had 97 assists and 113 turnovers, including 7 in each of Georgia’s NIT games.
Rising sophomore J.J. Frazier, who averaged 9.0 points per game in the final four games, played some alongside Mann later in the season and could push him for minutes next seasons.
“Our assist-to-turnover ratio was something that I’ve been frustrated with this year,” Fox said. “I thought we were a better shooting team this year even without Kentavious. But I thought our assist-to-turnover was something that we have to improve. We’ll try to improve in every area, but that’s certainly one we’ve got to address.”
Georgia ranks 320th out of 345 teams in assist/turnover ratio (minus-2.6).
“Charles, in his defense, he’s just a little worn down,” Fox said. “We had to ride him so hard early before J.J. really became a guy that understood how to play at both ends. I think (Mann’s) probably, in his defense, just a little bit worn down. And next year certainly with J.J.’s improvement, that hopefully won’t be as big of an issue.”
With forward Marcus Thornton having the best season of his Georgia career, the Bulldogs relied on rebounding (37th in the nation, plus-4.6 per game) and defense (36th, holding opponents to 40.3 field goal percentage) as the backbone of the team, but those were Williams’ strengths.
“We won’t play the exact same way, just because (Cameron) Forte and Kenny Paul Geno will make progress and (Brandon) Morris will get better,” Fox said. “Playing those guys at the same time is something I’ll look to do. …No matter who we had, there will be some differences. And to play Charles and J.J. together some, we have a lot more weapons at our disposal that we can figure how to put together.”
Fox, 85-77 overall in five seasons at Georgia, has two years left on a contract that was extended in 2011.
Athletic director Greg McGarity has not spoken publicly since the season ended about Fox or the program.
“I think any conversations about that should be held in private before they’re talked about in public,” Fox said.
Georgia has two scholarships available and landing a post player is a priority.
“We need to get another frontline player,” Fox said. “We’re not as big, and I don’t want to be as big as we were when I inherited it, because you’re just so slow that way. You’ve got to have an element of size to protect the basket and rebound. But you’ve got to have guys who can run, but we need to add some size, for sure.”
Djurisic, who started a combined 22 games as a freshman and sophomore, could replace Williams in the starting lineup as a senior, Fox said.
“Now I’m ready to step back and lead the team,” Djurisic said.
There’s still “a little bit of work to do” on the nonconference schedule, Fox said.
The slate includes games in the preseason NIT, at Georgia Tech and Chattanooga and at home against Seton Hall (on Dec. 21) and Colorado.
The Bulldogs have had to dig out of 1-4 and 2-7 holes each of the past two seasons in nonconference play. Fox is hopeful that a more veteran team will help.
“We have more guys back, and that should hopefully get us off to a better start,” he said.
Getting to the NCAA tournament after just one trip in five seasons under Fox will be something to shoot for on a team that improved this year following back-to-back 15-17 seasons.
“I think we’re going to have a great team next year,” Morris said. “We’re going to have a lot of guys returning. Making it this far is just a really big bonus for us. I think we’re going to be able to build off of it and get better this summer and come back ready and looking forward to accomplishing more next season.”