If the sports calendar were a house, the college basketball season walks through the backdoor — quietly, leaving no fingerprints, sleeping in the pantry until somebody finally notices. It doesn’t loudly announce its arrival like a superhero, proclaiming to the masses, “Come hither, you downtrodden Braves’ fans. I’m here to rescue you.”
College basketball has March Madness. Also November Inconspicuousness.
How many people in Athens even realize Georgia plays its first basketball game Friday night — and against its state rival?
“Because of (Todd) Gurley’s comeback and the chance we can win the SEC East, there’s probably not a lot of people talking about us,” Mark Fox said. And he coaches the team.
Georgia and Georgia Tech, the hoop arms, open the season Friday night at McCamish Pavilion. Not a lot of folks focused on roundball right now. The Bulldogs and Yellow Jackets football teams play their two biggest games against their highest ranked opponents of the season Saturday — Georgia against No. 9 Auburn, Tech against No. 19 Clemson.
This isn’t Kentucky, or North Carolina, or Indiana. Basketball never will elevate to the level of football in Georgia. But a game between the area’s two highest profile programs from the biggest conferences shouldn’t be relegated to relative public-access television on the sports dial.
“I just feel like this game needs to become an event for people to see,” Fox said.
“Mark and I have talked about this — we need to find a better week in the non-conference season when we can do this,” Tech coach Brian Gregory said. “It would be good for the rivalry. But the ramifications of (conference expansion) and what’s happening with other tournaments has made that difficult.”
If the road to the Final Four periodically detoured through Georgia, attention wouldn’t be as big of an issue. But Tech and Georgia are constantly in various stages of building, rebuilding or scrambling. Since reaching the national championship game in 2004, the Jackets have been to three NCAA tournaments in 10 years (winning one game). Georgia has had four coaches since Tubby Smith bolted after two seasons in 1997. Fox is better equipped for success than Ron Jirsa or Dennis Felton and his moral compass isn’t broken, unlike Jim Harrick’s. But talent has been an issue, and the Dogs have reached the tournament once in five years.
The point being: Tech and Georgia basketball won’t sell on the product alone. Their game needs to be played, as Fox suggests, the day after Thanksgiving, or maybe in late December, when it can breathe. If it was part of a four-team state tournament, say with Georgia State and Mercer, all the better. The sport needs an impetus to grow and improve.
But conference expansion has made scheduling problematic. Expanded conference schedules mean less flexibility in scheduling. Tournaments, like the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, which are a part of TV deals, also get in the way.
But it needs to be a priority. Just as teams are identified by their stars, sports are identified by their signature events.
On the court, the Dogs would appear to have a solid chance of being a tournament team this season. They have a strong returning backcourt in Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines (although Gaines will be limited against Tech because of an illness that kept him out for three weeks of practice). They also return Marcus Thornton and Nemanja Djurisic to the front line and have added a talented freshman, Yante Maten.
Fox’s team was 12-6 and tied for second in the SEC last season (20-14 overall). But some bad losses and a shortage of impressive non-conference wins kept the Dogs out of the NCAA tournament. “It used to be that if you were .500 or better in your conference, you would get in,” Fox said.
If Tech finishes .500 or better in the ACC, it would be an upset. Trae Golden and Daniel Miller are gone, and Robert Carter Jr. transferred. The Jackets finished 13th of 15 in a preseason ACC media poll. Gregory is trying to build a robot out of spare parts in his garage and transfers Demarco Cox and Charles Mitchell. This could take some time.
There is this, however: Gregory is 3-0 against Fox. Imagine how much that stat would be played up if this were football and everybody paid attention.
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