On Jan. 6, Georgia beat Alabama by 19 points to move to 11-3. Maybe you missed that result, coming as it did two days before those schools met in a different sport with a trophy at stake, but back then it would have been impossible to imagine the basketball Bulldogs falling all but off the NCAA bubble by Valentine’s Day. But that’s where they were entering play Saturday, losers of seven of nine, no longer listed anywhere – not even in the “next four out”-- of Joe Lunardi’s ESPN Bracketology.
Georgia had begun to slip when it arrived in Auburn on Jan. 20, but the doings that day might go down as, mixing sports again, Mark Fox’s Faton Bauta Game. The Bulldogs led by 14 at half. They lost by 14. They went 15 minutes between baskets. Yes, Auburn has, almost out of nowhere, gotten very good, but no halfway decent team should ever be outscored 31-4.
The Bulldogs returned home and wasted another double-figure lead, falling to Arkansas in overtime. If not for an upset of Florida last week in Stegeman Coliseum, Georgia would have entered Saturday’s Auburn rematch having lost six in a row. As it happened, the Bulldogs didn’t have to worry about holding a lead this time. They never had one. They lost 78-61.
If this wasn’t the worst home loss of Fox’s tenure – now at eight years and 24 games – it belongs on the podium. On Lettermen’s Day with former luminaries Willie Anderson and Jarvis Hayes in the Stegasaurus, the latest Bulldogs were clueless. They were outrebounded 31-27 by a smallish opponent. They allowed the Tigers to make 50.9 percent of their shots. They were outscored 30-26 in the lane, 25-9 off turnovers, 15-6 on second-chance points, 15-4 on the fast break and 17-10 off the bench.
Those numbers, manifold and meaningful though they were, only hinted at how outclassed Georgia was. The No. 8 Tigers entered without their leading scorer, Bryce Brown of Stone Mountain having dinged his shoulder in a loss to Texas A&M on Thursday. They’ve been without two key players and assistant coach Chuck Person all season, the wages of being enmeshed in the FBI’s case against Adidas. But say what you will about Bruce Pearl – and I’ll just say that I’d never hire him to shepherd my program – the man can coach.
I used to think Fox could, too. That opinion is undergoing major revision.
Auburn bore the stamp of a team that knew exactly what it wanted to do. Georgia looked as if has never practiced. The first half ended with Rayshaun Hammonds, a freshman on whom Fox had recently soured, missing two iffy 3-pointers and throwing away an inbounds pass. The second half began with Hammonds losing the ball again. And he was among the better Bulldogs – he finished with 14 points – this dark day.
Auburn led 40-31 at the half because another Georgia product – Jared Harper, a 5-foot-10 guard from Pebblebrook – flitted between and shot over the Bulldogs. In the second half, the game turned when Harper unaccountably missed three free throws that could have pushed a 10-point lead to 13. Georgia closed within four and had a chance to draw nearer when Nicolas Claxton, a 6-foot-11 freshman, hoisted a 3-pointer. The long rebound became a fast break that yielded two Auburn points. The Bulldogs would never be so close again.
The end was embarrassing. Auburn was ripping the ball from Georgia hands with such disdain that it appeared the Bulldogs were handing it over. Whenever the Tigers would miss, they’d chase down the rebound. This wasn’t just being outplayed and outcoached, though those things also happened. This was being outhustled.
The first postgame words from Fox: “Our defense and rebounding have just disappeared on us,” and the unspoken part of that was chilling. Offense is mostly skill. Defense and rebounding are mostly effort.
Fox again: “If you’re really getting after it, you’ll find a way to get a couple of rebounds.”
About his offense, which is awful, Fox said: “It has been a real challenge to replace (J.J.) Frazier. We’ve been unable to do that just yet.”
We note that Georgia has played 80 percent of its regular season, and it’s not as if Frazier’s depature after last season was a shock. He was, er, a senior. We also note that Pebblebrook High is 84.8 miles from Georgia’s gym, and a former PHS point guard scored 24 points and made seven assists on this floor Saturday.
Said Pearl: “It was an important game for us because half of our roster is from Georgia. It was important for recruiting.”
Asked how much of Georgia’s failings fall on its coaches, Fox said: “It all falls on the coaching staff. It all falls on me. I’ll take 100 percent of the responsibility – 100 percent. … The responsibility totally falls on me.”
Not to belabor a point, but … yes, it does. He has had eight seasons and 24 games,. His ninth team is 13-11 and is falling so fast that the NIT might not want it. Georgia has won enough games against respectable opposition to be respectable itself, but recent events make us ask if there’s anything left, anything at all.
This seems a team that has lost hope. This seems a coach who, having been granted one of the longest leashes in recent collegiate annals, has at last run out of time.