Mark Fox deserves to come back for Georgia (updated)

It had been a while since the Georgia basketball team won 10 conference games. This assumes we don’t count the years that Jim Harrick was on campus, and considering his records still exist only in the spirit world way, way, way south of here, nobody should.

The last cleansed season of good fortune: 1996-97. The Bulldogs went 10-6 in SEC play. It was an achievement considered so implausible in the actual college basketball universe that Kentucky parachuted into Athens shortly thereafter and stole Georgia’s coach, Tubby Smith. Excluding the four seasons that Harrick colored outside the lines and reaffirmed his lack of a conscience in academia, Georgia is playing its 13th season since then and has finished with a winning conference record just once in the past 12 (9-7 in 2010-11).

Well, make that twice in 13.

The Bulldogs flattened Missouri 71-56 Tuesday night at Stegeman Coliseum. They’re 10-5 in the SEC with only three regular season games left. They’re on the verge of clinching third place and a double-bye in the conference tournament.

Is this the same team that started 1-4, losing consecutive games to Georgia Tech, Davidson, Temple and Nebraska?

“I felt like we could have a good team, and I never wavered in that,” coach Mark Fox said Tuesday, moments following his news conference. “I thought we’d have some early struggles without Kentavious (Caldwell-Pope). Did I think we’d be 1-4? No. But I’m proud of where we are. It’s not ultimately where we want to be, but we’re going in the right direction.”

So tell me again why some consider Fox to be on the coaching hot seat?

He deserves to come back next season. After what we’ve seen over the last several weeks, it would be a surprise if he didn’t come back.

Georgia beat Missouri foor the second time this season. The first came in January, a 70-64 upset in overtime in Columbia. That was an emotional night Fox. The day before, he was in Garden City, Kansas, for his father’s funeral.

The first win over Missouri came five days after an ugly loss to George Washington that left Georgia 6-6. When asked to reflect on what he thought of his team back then, Fox said, “I was a zombie. My dad was dying that day. I don’t know what I thought.”

The Dogs are 16-11 overall now, including the 10-5 conference record. Look. I don’t care if most view the SEC as Florida-Kentucky-and-whoa-that-next-step’s-a-doozy. When a team goes 10-5 in a (somewhat) major conference, let alone one that suffered early season misery, it’s a big deal.

Georgia probably still needs a strong showing in the SEC tournament to get the attention of the NCAA tournament selection committee. But didn’t figure to even be a potential discussion as March neared.

“We used the adversity to become what we are now,” Fox said. “And there may be more adversity coming. You have to use that to your advantage to grow.”

I know. The SEC isn’t great. After Florida and Kentucky, it’s the seconds table at Value City.

Most expect three SEC teams in the NCAA tournament field. Bang on the SEC as much as you like but the last time the conference had only two teams came in 1979, and that was in a 40-team field. It’s 68 now.

Georgia’s RPI is in need of supplements. It ranked 88th nationally entering Tuesday, and only ninth among SEC schools. Starts of 1-4 and 6-6 will do that.

Fox believes his team was still in the post-KCP hangover period. Probably. But credit Fox for holding the team together. He deserves it. He deserves to come back next season.

This is his fifth season. Athletic director Greg McGarity wanted to “see improvement” in the basketball program this season. We’re seeing it. I understand there’s an anti-Fox contingent in the fan base, and he hasn’t been nearly as effective in recruiting as he needs to be. But improvement is apparent.

Kenny Gaines and Charles Mann form a nice backcourt. This isn’t a great shooting team, but it defends and rebounds well. (Georgia ranks second only to Kentucky in the SEC in field-goal defense, at 39.7 percent.) Missouri shot 32.1 percent (17 for 53). Next season’s team could actually be pretty good, given that only senior forward Donte’ Williams figures not to be back.

McGarity, always affable and generally available to the media, declined an interview request for this column. He said he prefers to wait until after the season before giving any evaluation of Georgia’s season, in general, and Fox, in particular.

Fair enough. But I don’t have that long, and I just didn’t feel like spending Tuesday weighing in on Javy Lopez’s worthiness of being inducted into the Braves’ Hall of Fame.

Fox’s contract was last extended in 2011 and has two more years to run. McGarity didn’t hire him — Damon Evans did — but he did give him the extension.

Even at Georgia, where’s men’s basketball ranks behind, well, almost everything, it’s easy to understand some of the dissatisfaction. Success is measured by NCAA tournament wins. Fox doesn’t have any. The Dogs reached the tournament in his second season, and they lost in the first round. Then Travis Leslie and Trey Thompkins both opted for the NBA, and it was like somebody in the program pulled the chute. (The decisions didn’t work out great for Leslie or Thompkins, either. Both spent about five minutes in the NBA.)

If the Dogs finish in the top four in the standings, they’ll receive a double-bye in the conference tournament, with a winnable game in the quarterfinals. Then they’ll have to work some magic. But after the loss of Caldwell-Pope and against the backdrop of low expectations, this has been a pretty good season — certainly after the disastrous 1-4 start.

Nobody should be talking about a change now.

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