Georgia Tech’s direction more promising than Georgia’s

So when Georgia Tech (the one with two wins) plays Georgia in their annual early-season basketball game, it’s probably best to take this approach: Don’t project crushing the competition in March — just be content for something slightly north of coordinated. This is all about direction.

Tech has it. Georgia doesn’t.

It’s early. Very early. Like, a-month-away-from-anybody-realizing-the-season-has-started early. But the Yellow Jackets looked far more promising in their third game of the season than the Bulldogs did in their second. Tech won the state’s battle of the non-titans Friday night 80-71 at Stegeman Coliseum.

We can sum up this game with one quote from Georgia guard Charles Mann, who alluded to Tech opening the second half with a 12-2 run that inflated their five-point halftime lead (43-38) to 15 (55-40): “They came out and punched us in the mouth, and we didn’t respond well.”

It helps to have players. Tech coach Brian Gregory has those. It remains to be seen if Georgia’s Mark Fox does.

One game means nothing for how each program will fare in their respective conferences this season. Neither is expected to compete for the title. But this game was significant for two reasons: 1) It gave a glimpse of the Jackets’ potential and how deep they are; 2) It was the third consecutive win for Tech (and Gregory) over Georgia (and Fox). That hasn’t happened in this series since 1992 to 1994. (Coaches: Bobby Cremins vs. Hugh Durham.)

Gregory was beaming afterward, but he was careful not to attach too much significance to the win, or say anything that might suggest his rebuilding efforts are far ahead of Fox’s.

“I think what’s happened on those three nights is we’ve played better,” Gregory said. “I’m not going to read too much into that. I think they (Georgia) are going to be very good.”

OK. That’s one. Georgia lost its best player, sophomore Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, to the NBA draft. Scoring may be an issue this season, outside of Mann (who led both teams with 24 points). Conversely, Tech had four players score in double figures and owned a significant advantage in rebounds (49-40), points in the paint (40-28), and points off the bench (29-13).

Fox: “There’s a lot to learn from this one, but it’s certainly no fun to lose.”

It’s not as if Gregory is a decidedly better coach than Fox. He may not be better at all. But there’s little question he has been a better recruiter. It’s the reason the Jackets have been ascending and the Bulldogs appear mired in Lake Mediocrity.

Neither program was able to secure commitments from the consensus top two recruits during the early signing period. Jakeenan Gant committed to Missouri; Ahmed Hill to Marquette. But Gregory has landed several other talented players from in-state (the Jackets have an unprecedented 14 Georgia players, including 10 on scholarship).

Fox? He hasn’t seemed to make as many in-roads. It would be one thing if Gregory arrived with some distinct recruiting advantage. But his last job was at Dayton. Gregory has joked he might as well have been from Neptune.

Fox was hired in 2009 by the since-departed Damon Evans. For a while, it looked like an inspired hiring. The Dogs pulled a few upsets in Fox’s first season, including three over ranked teams. The following season, he went 21-12 and reached the NCAA tournament.

But momentum has dissipated since, with consecutive 15-17 seasons (albeit an improved 9-9 in a horrible SEC last season). Now, some have to wonder about Fox’s future, and here are three reasons why: 1) Fox wasn’t hired by Greg McGarity, and the bar for a new boss generally tends to be higher: 2) recruiting issues; 3) basketball remains relatively off the radar in Athens.

It was difficult to tell if it was extreme school spirit or just desperation for attention when Fox showed up at Sanford Stadium in September for the Georgia-LSU football game. His face and chest were painted red with white stripes, and he wore spiked shoulder pads, as if preparing to attack the neighboring village. He sat with his fellow mock warmongers from the “Georgia Spike Squad.”

If that didn’t draw mocking, this did: Fox, who has a vote in the USA Today coaches’ Top 25 poll, gave a 25th-place vote to his team in the first two weeks. I’m guessing the Bulldogs just lost their coach’s vote.

There is reason to keep an eye on Tech, however. When the Jackets won in Athens two years ago, Gregory said, “We really didn’t a have a program at the time.” This is different. “A different stratosphere,” he said.

Tech and Georgia also appear to be on different levels now.