Now is the appropriate time for a postmortem for this 2015-16 Georgia Basketball Team.
This 2015-16 Georgia Basketball Team was supposed to do a lot of things this season and only two accomplishments on fans’ checklist that were met: Win more than twenty games and beat Georgia Tech. The team’s style of play, depth and experience all pointed to a team that would operate differently from past teams, but this was not the case. Mark Fox’s comments after the Michigan State game last season and his comments in the preseason could not have been any more different. These comments and changed sentiments should have warned fans that this sort of a season was going to happen. Most observers were paying more attention to what was said in Charlotte back on March 22, 2015 than what was said in a formal press conference on October 20, 2015 and in an informal press conference at center court at Stegeman Coliseum during Fall Practice. Then there was talk of pace of play being different, as in faster, this season than in past seasons.
Mark Fox’s immediate praise of Turtle Jackson and the fact that he was the first person to come to mind in Fox’s postgame interview at Time Warner Cable Arena a year ago made it seem like this team like this was going to have a different identity. However, the focus of Fall Practice surrounded Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines carrying the team. Turns out, only three members of the backcourt were able to contribute all season. Fall Practice commentary and hype should have made it clear to adjust expectations of what the Freshman class was going to do because they were not going to get the opportunities.
Mark Fox’s plans of having this team play fast and loose went by the wayside as soon as Fall Practice started, not necessarily once Juwan Parker was taken out of the mix due to a lingering achilles tendon injury. If the approach and game plan as stated were to be the same, then the pace is implied to be around the same relatively speaking, with the new shot clock in place. Fox’s talk of going to a traditional lineup and ruling out a four guard look due to Juwan Parker’s injury, made it clear that he had zero faith in his frontcourt personnel to play at a run and gun pace.
Rule of thumb with Mark Fox: If he talks about inexperience and mistakes, there’s reason for serious concern as far as offensive involvement, production and options on the floor.
Fox talked about the roller-coaster effect and he is right there is a bit of a roller-coaster at Georgia. Georgia would have a boom season followed by a bust, climb all the way up and go back down again. Fox’s goal was to remove the extreme drops like he had experienced after the 2010-11 Season. The 2011-12 Season was a disaster with two Seniors in the backcourt (Gerald Robinson Jr. and Dustin Ware) and an NBA Lottery Draft Pick playing the 3 spot (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope). Fox described that team as “Green as the New York Jets” before the season even started, which was a warning sign that the team was going to have a bad season. Georgia’s past would seem to indicate that a similar drop would occur for 2015-16, but Georgia’s talent level indicated that the team had potential for much more. This time the team was supposed to repeat the successes of last season with a different game plan, but instead the revenge tour of the non-conference games won last season became losses. This time, Georgia was supposed to get significant and balanced contributions, instead this team was lopsided in contributions from the student-athletes (more about that later).
Mark Fox when faced with inexperienced talent did what he typically does, retrench and limit contributions to prevent unforeseen mistakes from happening. With limited depth, Fox took away the team’s offensive aggression for some reason and also had sets with terminal elements. Fox admitted that he only had Mike Edwards only play the role of a screener for an entire game, which was an extreme form of micromanagement. Fox chose to play a struggling Houston Kessler as opposed to a more productive Edwards or Ogbeide in the non-conference slate. The major exception to this was Edwards’ performance against Oakland where Fox could not pull Edwards out of the game and even expressed frustration when Edwards scored a basket.
Georgia would play in man-to-man in the non-conference slate and it would cost this team games as the depth was seriously challenged by foul trouble. Even early into the conference schedule, Georgia played man-to-man defense and did a horrible job adjusting to the new emphasis concerning Freedom of Movement. Georgia’s 2-3 Matchup Zone was employed in extreme foul trouble and actually worked well. This team rebounded more effectively in the 2-3 Matchup Zone than Man-to-Man Defense.
Mark Fox was fighting his team’s natural inclinations for much of the season. Georgia played slow when the team was more inclined to play fast. Georgia was playing man-to-man when it was more actively involved playing zone. Georgia’s offense struggled with the typical sets, but yet thrived off basic ball screen induced inside-out action. The Georgia offense played better when all 5 were actively involved in the offense rather than just the Big Four. Mark Fox let Yante Maten get double teamed comfortably as Houston Kessler was not a strong enough shooter or driver on the perimeter to make defenses pay. Mike Edwards was instructed not to move when on the perimeter with the ball and when he did, it was usually something that raised the eyebrows of fans, but it would earn Edwards a benching. One time, Edwards did a spin move off the dribble drive from the perimeter and nearly earned himself a basket for it. Edwards came back to the bench as his teammates were laughing and it appeared like he said to a teammate when he sat down, “Totally worth it.”
Mark Fox’s offense and defense afforded no team chemistry and as the season went along, it seemed that J.J. Frazier was the team’s de facto leader as he enjoyed the greatest luxury of shot selection and defensive initiative. Fox had always been hard on Frazier, but he did not seem to let it get to him. J.J. Frazier is Georgia’s version of Damon Stoudamire and the numbers bear it out rather well. Frazier was the clutch shooter that made the Georgia half court offense look better than it really was. Georgia often played “hero ball” with Frazier being the hero.
Exhibit A: J.J. Frazier’s figures in his first three seasons.
Exhibit B: Damon Stoudamire’s tenure at Arizona.
Fox’s inflexibility, hubris and insecurity about his team’s experience set up a season like this. It was only until it was too late that Fox let his team play differently and it coincided with more points and wins. Fox’s choices in depth and minutes distribution wore his team into the ground in February. Fox began making crazy excuses about travel and the heat inside arenas. It was not until after the Ole Miss game that changes started to be made, but by then it was far too late. The damage was already done and psyches needed to be healed quickly.
Weakening the confidence of freshmen and limiting the expectations of how much they can contribute to the program hurt this team. The depth, contributions and crunch time moments were missing. Perhaps, the most affected was E’Torrion Wilridge. It was unfair for the perpetually dog-housed E’Torrion Wilridge to have to make a game winning or game tying shot at LSU to cap a major comeback. However, Fox’s foul situation forced a talented freshman that had his confidence destroyed to take that game winning corner shot. Wilridge did not trust his shot with Ben Simmons slow to rotate over and never a threat to block the shot. Wilridge dribbled in and took a two point shot to tie, missed and LSU got the rebound. It would have made a great story that a freshman that was receiving minimal minutes in conference play hit a game winner, but it is hard to get that from an 18 year old that spent entire games sulking on the bench wondering when he would ever see the floor. It was one of the more crushing moments to watch of the entire season because of the context around it rather than just the outcome.
Never has a Georgia team quit on the floor or admittedly was not into a playing a game under Mark Fox. Yes, a Georgia team under Mark Fox has intentionally put in a lacking effort by design due to widespread illness on the team and it actually was a brilliant decision because the team was fresher and healthier going forward in the 2013-14 Season. However, the performances against Texas A&M and Kentucky during the regular season were shameful displays that are not emblematic of a team that had resilience. The team played more like the team fans were expecting going into the season from the Ole Miss Home Game going forward.
The Big Four carried this Georgia Basketball Team and eventually it became obvious that it was all by design. To address the fatigue matter, Fox did substitute a lot more in the first half recognizing that his team was going to run. However, in the second half, the substitutions stopped in the 1-3 spots. Georgia would be worn down, but do enough to hold the lead due to more energy. Georgia’s rebounding improved toward the end of the regular season, but in the Conference Tournament and NIT, struggled on the glass against teams that Georgia should have outperformed.
Georgia never made the effort to push pace and let it be their identity until the end of the season. Georgia was content to play at their opponent’s pace, which meant that their opponent dictated everything. The metrics show that when Georgia plays faster, the team is more competitive.
Yante Maten was expected to improve on the floor, but nobody expected him to jump out and average 16.5 points, 8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game. The thought of Maten being an NBA Draft prospect in 2017 even seemed incredibly far-fetched, but what has transpired is an extremely talented young man with a great deal of perseverance, work ethic and ability grow into an All-SEC student-athlete. If Jaron Blossomgame is a borderline first round pick now, imagine what Maten can be after next season. Maten has to continue put in the work in the classroom, the lab, out in the field, the practice gym and the weight room to be the best student-athlete he can be. Maten had ten double-doubles and even had games where he scored 33 points and blocked six shots. His improvement at the Free Throw Line and shooting outside the paint provided a sense of stability within the offense.
Kenny Gaines dealt with injuries the past two seasons. His contributions as a scorer, lock-down defender and athletic shot blocker will be missed. Kenny Gaines was the team’s best transition three point shooting option and was the only other member of this team to be able to create their own three point shot. Gaines was a stable free throw shooter and he nearly adjusted his entire game to shooting from the perimeter. Gaines’ presence forced defenses to spread out and it provided him with opportunities to slash and drive, but he did not do it with the frequency of his teammate, Charles Mann.
Charles Mann was used strangely this season as he did not receive nearly as many calls as fans are accustomed. Charles Mann is a prolific free throw shooter, not because of his percentage, but because of the volume of attempts. His ability to get the calls impacted the way he played the game and the need for him to play multiple positions required him to do more on both ends of the floor. He never was comfortable this season and in a season where the Freedom of Movement emphasis was in play, his reputation and officiating inconsistencies meant that he was not going to shoot more at the Charity Stripe. Mann made up for his lack of dribble drive attempts by showing that he could hit three point shots. Mann cut down on his turnovers because of his de-emphasized role in the offense. Mann was the fourth option when the Big Four were all on the floor at once. Perhaps no Georgia Bulldog changed the complexion of the Georgia Basketball program more than Mann as he ushered in a new era of offense in Athens.
The annual Mark Fox tweak came too late in the season as he really did not have a handle on how his team operated, but it came when Fox needed it most. Whenever Mark Fox struggles in a season, he introduces a tweak that turns the team around to avoid a complete calamity like the 2011-12 Season. The dribble drive emphasis in 2012-13, in 2013-14 his team played “knockout ball” and solidified on defense, in 2014-15 Fox mixed up the defenses more and this season he just let them play on offense and used the 2-3 Matchup Zone.
How Georgia won twenty games this season despite a rather obvious game plan against them is a bit of a wonder. However, it was tougher to game plan for these Dawgs in the last eight games. The faster pace, lack of predictability and greater freedom was rather clear. Georgia’s SEC schedule certainly helped the team pad wins prior to the Ole Miss game. Georgia beat Missouri, Tennessee and Arkansas with the same awful game plan. The team notched wins over South Carolina and Mississippi State by being different. This team could not beat the quality teams on the schedule and had no wins over NCAA Tournament teams. The biggest accomplishments this season were beating Georgia Tech (ending a four year losing streak) AND being the South Carolina State Champions by sweeping through South Carolina, Clemson and Winthrop.
The challenging non-conference schedule was somewhat challenging, but not as dreadful as advertised. The Murray State game was built up as a major game by both UGA and by an uninformed fan base that did not bother to actually look at their new roster and coaching staff. Chattanooga was the real challenge and it was a game where that created high expectations of the Georgia offense and freshmen afterward. Instead, the team took a step backwards in November. Chattanooga and Seton Hall turned out to be the only NCAA Tournament teams that Georgia faced in the non-conference slate prior to the SEC/Big XII Challenge at Baylor. Mark Fox did not tell the truth on National Television stating that his team played no cupcakes. He even did a skit with Dick Vitale concerning the matter, but yet Georgia did play a cupcake named Robert Morris to close the calendar year.
Diminishing wins is a bit of put down, but Georgia really did not win against anyone that was actually above their level. In a parity-filled, weak SEC, Georgia could not capitalize more than they did. Mark Fox constrained his team and wore them out by not using his team’s depth and not playing to their strengths.
If it looks ridiculous, that is because it is. 80.8% of the team’s scoring came from four members of this team. Here are the other figures.
Compare these distributions to last season’s team:
The 2014-15 team had no choice in the matter as far as depth was concerned. Georgia’s depth was challenged greatly by injuries, but yet the productivity is rather balanced on this more experienced team.
How has Georgia closed out seasons in the past?
2009-10: Lost five out of the last eight games. 5-7 in February and March.
2010-11: Won four out of the last eight games. 7-6 in February and March.
2011-12: Lost five out of the last eight games. 5-7 in February and March.
2012-13: Lost five out of the last eight games. 6-6 in February and March.
2013-14: Won five out of the last eight games. 10-5 in February and March.
2014-15: Won five out of the last eight games. 7-6 in February and March.
2015-16: Won six out of the last eight games. 9-6 in February and March.
It seems that the way Georgia closes out a season over the past four seasons may have a way of indicating the type of season that is to follow. A .500 record or better in both February and March goes hand-in-hand with a postseason berth while the opposite holds to be true as well. The 2011-12 team did not finish the season strong, which indicated that the following season would also be a woeful season. However, the 2012-13 team was able to go .500 to close the season out and that set up a program that was ready to take the next step up. The finish in 2013-14 was a precursor to an NCAA Tournament team. Georgia’s less successful end of season pointed to a following season that would earn an NIT berth. What is to come for this team next season? Looks like a probable NCAA Tournament team.
What about Mark Fox?
This is the most anticipated question that is to be answered on this site.
Much consternation has been made about Mark Fox’s standing as Head Coach of the Georgia Men’s Basketball Team. It is fully anticipated that Mark Fox should and will be retained by the University of Georgia Athletic Association for the following reasons:
- Improved recruiting.
- He made history as the first coach to win 20 or more games in three straight seasons.
- Raised level of the program above being a bottom-feeder that loses to RPI 100+ opponents.
- Well connected at the University of Georgia, more specifically, friendly with Don Leeburn.
- He put his ego first many times, but never betrayed his employer like the way another coach did.
- He listened to Greg McGarity’s suggestions and followed through with them, the results are much improved.
- 100% Graduation Rate
- Broke the losing streak against Georgia Tech.
- Made significant in-roads with local High Schools and AAU programs.
- Scandal-free program.
- College Basketball Fraternity is very close. Firing Fox after this season could be a Missouri-level disaster when trying to hire a coach.
However, this all being said, Mark Fox must meet high expectations next season. Stanford fired Johnny Dawkins and he both made a Sweet 16 and won an NIT Championship in his eight seasons there. Mark Fox needs to deliver a third NCAA Tournament berth to show that the roller coaster ride is no longer. Otherwise, Greg McGarity will find someone else that can build on the foundation created by Fox in 2017. Fox may even have to win a game in the NCAA Tournament to show that he is doing more than the bare minimum, this is not like the Minnesota situation with Tubby Smith at all. Tubby took Minnesota to the NCAA Tournament three times in his six year tenure there and his last game was in the Round of 32. Minnesota was foolish to fire Tubby, Georgia has waited long enough for consistent, solid results.
Anything less than a Round of 64 NCAA Tournament berth with a single digit seed will not do for Fox, he may be in Year 7 and he will see Year 8 barring a decision to leave for another job. Fox needs to put his ego aside this Spring and do what is best for his team, unlike what he did last Spring with Tevin Mack and James White. Georgia needs 13 scholarship level student-athletes on the roster next season and he should seriously consider a Graduate Transfer in the frontcourt to give him four solid frontcourt options. Fox’s team cannot play slow like the way his teams have played in the last seven years, this team is far too talented and athletic to do that. Georgia needs to play a complete season on a mission and Fox cannot constrain his talent anymore.
Retaining Mark Fox is the only option at this time, but Fox is free to leave and go to another school. He may do it out of insecurity or for more personal reasons. If Fox does not make the NCAA Tournament as a single digit seed OR get to the Round of 32 as a double digit seed, he needs to be let go as the bare minimum is not enough. Fox raised the levels of expectation with the level of the program, but if the program dips or if the ceiling of the program under Fox is clearly established, it is time to move on.
However, if Fox surpasses expectations and has a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, the program’s ceiling is completely unknown and could even involve cutting nets. In that case, the floor is clearly established and Georgia will not fall to the levels experienced during the first four years under Fox or during the Dennis Felton era. It is possible in this scenario that Georgia raises itself to the level that Mississippi State, Florida, Alabama, Tennessee and this season Texas A&M have occupied by being the prime challenger to Kentucky’s quest for the SEC crown.
It was Year 7 under Mark Fox, but it was truly Year 3 since Michael Adams left as President of the University of Georgia. Year 4 is every coach’s “prove it” year when rebuilding, Mark Fox now has to deliver the goods. Bulldog Nation’s eyes are upon you.