We are at the conclusion of another disappointing UGA Basketball season. For a fan base that is starving for relevancy and maybe just the occasional NCAA Tournament victory, the 2016-17 season has fallen flat yet again for the Bulldogs. It has now been 15 years since Georgia last won an NCAA Tournament game, and to find an NCAA Tournament win that hasn’t been vacated by the NCAA, you have to go back to 21 years, to 1996.
Those numbers alone are staggering enough, but I’m not here to talk about UGA Basketball history. Let’s talk about this year.
First of all, it should be noted that many informed fans, journalists and coaches alike considered this year’s Georgia Basketball team as the most talented roster Mark Fox would have at his disposal in his 8 seasons at the University of Georgia. With 2 of the conference’s premier upperclassmen in Senior Guard JJ Frazier and Junior Forward Yante Maten, a host of talented underclassmen returning, and easily Fox’s most highly regarded incoming freshman duo of Tyree Crump and Jordan Harris, Georgia was conservatively picked to finish fourth in the SEC by the media at SEC Media days. Going into the season, it was pretty clear that making the NCAA Tournament was not only possible, but a very realistic goal. Some fans even predicted (or hoped) that rather than talking about the Bubble and barely squeaking into the Tournament, we would be discussing seeding in the NCAA Tournament right about now.
If you have been living under a rock for the past 5 months, you can read MemphisDog’s so eloquently stated season in review here. Just know that the Hoop Dawgs did not live up to the preseason Top 4 in the SEC hype. When the Dawgs take the court on Thursday afternoon in the SEC Tournament, it will be as an 8th seed. Not only will it take winning the SEC Tournament for UGA to punch its ticket to the Big Dance, but the Dawgs have not even been in the realistic discussion of Bubble Teams since January. To say that the season has been a disappointment would be an understatement. This begs the question: Where Did it All Go Wrong?
The answer to that question is what infuriates many Georgia basketball fans. There’s no easy way to say it, but Mark Fox simply does not know which players to play, how much to play them, where to play them or which groups to play together to maximize the team’s effectiveness. With the exception of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Fox has steadfastly refused to give his talented freshmen reasonable playing time, instead opting to give those minutes to overmatched upperclassmen. If you follow the UGA basketball program closely, this is probably not the first, second or third time you’ve heard this argument. This is a trend that has been developing over Fox’s entire eight year tenure. I even wrote an article earlier this season focusing on this very issue, which detailed season-by-season each year of Fox’s tenure, if you are interested in taking a stroll down memory lane.
Play Your Best Players
Now that the regular season is over, it seems completely fair to look back at some statistics to illustrate my point. Out of respect to Houston Kessler and Kenny Paul Geno, I will simply say they are both overmatched at this level of basketball, and they would not be playing meaningful minutes for any SEC or, for that matter, any other major conference program. Tyree Crump, on the other hand, was a Consensus Top 75 Prospect who was widely regarded as the second most highly coveted recruit of the Mark Fox era.
Now consider the fact that both Houston Kessler and Kenny Paul Geno played more minutes this season than Tyree Crump. Yes, you read that right: this season, Geno played 249 minutes, Kessler played 170 minutes, and Crump played for 164 minutes. I realize that all 3 of these players play different positions, so this is clearly not an apples to apples comparison, but it is hard to fathom how a player as talented as Crump cannot get meaningful playing time as a freshman while 2 upperclassmen, who provide negligible statistical value, have no problems getting court time.
Did I mention that Crump scored almost twice as many points in his 164 minutes as Geno and Kessler scored in their 419 minutes combined? Crump scored 84 points this season. Geno and Kessler combined for 52. To take it just one step further, Crump has scored as many points in his past 83 game minutes (52), as Geno and Kessler have scored all year. Furthermore, Crump’s points were the difference in two roads wins – at Tennessee and Alabama – and his point were instrumental in the home win over Auburn. There is little doubt UGA would have lost those games without Crump’s points.
Keep in mind that Georgia currently ranks 193rd nationally in points per game. This is the same team and the same coach that has been in search of a “third scorer” all season. Rather than give a supremely talented player like Tyree Crump a chance to seize that opportunity, Fox instead chose to allow Crump’s freshman season to waste away with him looking on from the bench.
Coincidentally, the player given the best opportunity to become that “third scorer” was Juwan Parker, and while he will finish the season as the Bulldogs third leading scorer, he will have done so in an incredibly inefficient way. Parker shot a putrid 16% from three point range, which remarkably falls right in with his career percentage of 18.1%. Parker has the 9th highest field goal percentage on the team, which is obviously nothing to write home about. He struggles defensively and barely has a positive assist-to-turnover ratio. This should not be seen as an attack on Parker’s character (or Geno’s or Kessler, for that matter), merely his production.
The one factor that Parker has in his favor happens to be the single trait Mark Fox seemingly values most: He is an upperclassman. That is the only rational thing that can justify his minutes. Parker, who could certainly be a contributor as a role player, has been treated by Mark Fox as a near-equal to Frazier and Maten. If you don’t believe me, look no further than their minutes played per game: Frazier (34 MPG), Maten (29.2 MPG), and Parker (27.8 MPG).
You have to move way down the list to find Tyree Crump at a lowly 6.3 minutes per game. Even though Jordan Harris has not been discussed by observers of the program nearly as much as Crump, I would argue that he was mismanaged this season as well. He is averaging 17 minutes per game, but, like many other young players under Fox, has seemed to regress, play tentatively, and l
ost playing time over the past month (wait, I mean Harris was “injured”). Crump and Harris are both exciting players, and their talent is apparent each and every time they enter the game, however briefly that might be. Parker on the other hand is a volume scorer who often needs 10 shots to achieve 10 points.
It is nice to see the numbers back up what many of us were able to see, almost immediately. Just look at each player’s season stats on 3 pointers and tell me who should have been shooting (read:playing) more (or less) often: Juwan Parker was 8-50 from three (16%), Harris was 22-47 (47%) and Crump was 16-47 (34%). And yet, against all rational thought, Parker played significantly more minutes than Harris and Crump combined.
Then there’s always the Boxscore Plus/Minus metric, which is rather telling. Tyree Crump was third on the team in Offensive Boxscore Plus/Minus and E’Torrion Wilridge is tied for second on the team in Defensive Boxscore Plus/Minus with Yante Maten. Both hardly played for much of the season.
Georgia finished SEC play dead last in the conference in 3 Point Field goals made. I would argue the issue was less that UGA as a team could’t shoot the trifecta and more that Mark Fox would not allow the players on the team who can make shots to play. Keep in mind, a 3 point shot is worth 50% more points than a 2 pointer. It pays statistically to be able to shoot the 3 well and often.
Mark Fox let his hubris and stubborn nature define him.
I have not seen anything over the past few months that has led me to change my opinion as stated in December:
“Fox has plenty of faults. But the one fault that will be his undoing at the University of Georgia will be his refusal to allow his freshman to play loosely and freely, and more importantly, just play, period. Objectively, his mismanagement of freshmen and affinity for mid-major caliber or below upperclassmen has held this program back for 5+ years. For at least 5 seasons, frustrated fans have begged Fox to simply play his best players for the majority of the minutes. He has failed miserably at this simple, bare minimum requirement/request.”
It is painfully clear Mark Fox will not change. If you have not watched any college basketball over the past 8 years other than UGA games, you would probably find it hard to believe that freshmen come in and play at just about every other college program in the country with no problem. While Mark Fox fabricates excuses and reasons to not play his talented freshmen in Athens (really Mark? The gym is too hot?), elsewhere… literally everywhere else, talented freshmen play. Just take a look at this graphic of the players surrounding Crump in the Rivals 100, and the minutes that they have played this season. Jordan Harris is also thrown in as a bonus.
The numbers speak for themselves. Of the 20 players surrounding him in the Rivals 100, Crump has played the fewest minutes by far. Crump is one of only 2 players who has played less than 10 minutes per game and has clearly outperformed the only other one, Michigan’s Xavier Gibson. It almost appears Fox is proud of how little he plays freshmen, seemingly not realizing how this might hurt him in recruiting. (Good young players like to play? Who knew?) Indeed, it has already been used against UGA in recruiting these very freshmen we are discussing here today.
After Crump’s best performance this season (16 points in 13 minutes against Division II opponent Morehouse), Fox was asked about Crump and Harris both playing at the same time. Fox boldly, and almost boastfully, proclaimed this would be the last time the two of them would be on the court at the same time this season, and he was practically right. To my knowledge, Crump and Harris logged few if any minutes on the court together for the remainder of the season. With as many lineup combinations as Fox likes to play, it’s almost impossible to believe, but it’s true. How could Fox proclaim these 2 would not play together again unless he planned all along to make sure that they didn’t? And why would he plan that out, months in advance? I don’t have all the answers, or even most of the answers, but what I do know is this – in eight seasons, Mark Fox has stubbornly proven himself incapable of identifying and playing his best players.
Fox hit the jackpot with Yante Maten and JJ Frazier. For 3 seasons, Fox had 2 of the best players in program history together on the same team; yet he could not parlay that into even a single NCAA Tournament victory. We have seen the best of what Mark Fox can or will accomplish at UGA, without question. Within the next few weeks, we will know whether Fox will be retained for yet another season. In 8 seasons, Fox has managed to win zero NCAA Tournament games and has won just 2 NIT First Round home games over those powerhouses Belmont and Vermont. Between the 8 year results and the disappointment this season became, bringing Fox back would be a difficult move to justify, if the athletic department truly desires to succeed in men’s basketball. If Fox is brought back, consider that a ringing endorsement from the UGA Athletic Administration for mediocrity and a cheerleader for the status quo.
Update 3/6: Pat Forde is reporting that UGA is beginning to gather information on possible replacements for Fox.
Update 3/7: This report has been quickly denied by UGA Athletic Director Greg McGarity. This is an example of a categorical denial, CNN should take notes. McGarity made it clear that they are looking forward to Mark Fox coaching the Georgia Basketball program next season. Either Greg McGarity is lying or we have another case of the media having a poor filtration system with disseminating information from unnamed sources. #FakeNews
“In response to the report by Yahoo Sports, we are NOT in the process of exploring our options to replace Mark Fox. We look forward to Mark leading our program next year and all of our efforts are centered on postseason play. It’s unfortunate we need to respond at this time, but it was necessary to quiet these unfounded rumors.” – Greg McGarity
If we are lucky, Crump and Harris will be the last two UGA freshman to have their growth stunted by Mark Fox.