Beat column: The key to Fox’s future at Georgia is improvement

semerson@macon.comApril 22, 2013 

Greg McGarity might be an accessible athletics director, but he also chooses his words carefully. And the one word McGarity kept using Monday will be the vital one next season for the Georgia men’s basketball program.

At least now that none of those words are Kentavious, Caldwell or Pope.

When Caldwell-Pope announced last week that he was leaving Georgia and entering the NBA draft, the immediate -- and understandable -- reaction of some fans was that it made a virtual lame duck of head coach Mark Fox.

As the thinking goes, Georgia needs to have a very good season next year, and, with the departure of Caldwell-Pope, there’s no chance of that. Therefore, Fox is a lame duck. As the thinking goes.

Sorry. It’s not quite that simple.

McGarity, who did not hire Fox, will therefore not keep Fox around just to justify the hiring four years ago. But McGarity has also weathered football head coach Mark Richt’s hot seat status, and there’s a lesson in that for what he might do about Fox.

Two years ago, coming off that 6-7 season for football, McGarity stated he wanted to see improvement out of Richt’s team. The A.D. didn’t decree a minimum win total, or beating Florida, or winning the SEC East. He just wanted to see the team get better.

A year later, McGarity was signing Richt to a contract extension.

Now Fox, who is 55-53 in four seasons, is entering his fifth one. So what does McGarity want to see next year?

Improvement. During the course of five minutes Monday, McGarity used that word seven times, and he used “improve” twice more.

“It’s like any other program: You look for continuous improvement. We do not, with any coach, set any type of minimum wins, things of that nature. Coaches have enough pressure on them anyway,” McGarity said. “And, even if you ask the coaches, they would probably say the same thing as far as continued improvement. That’s the challenges that lie ahead with every sport. How do we improve every year, how do we get better.”

So it means Fox doesn’t necessarily have to get Georgia back to the NCAA tournament to keep his job.

“No, because if you make a statement like that, we’ve seen several teams that have not been selected for probably reasons that are out of their control,” McGarity said. “There are some things that are sometimes out of a coaches’ control. They may be on the fence, and that team might have gotten in the tournament if something else had not happened. You’ve got all kinds of dynamics, that’s why you fall back on the term ‘improvement.’ ”

It’s a smart term for McGarity to fall back on. It doesn’t lock him into anything. It’s a perfectly reasonable expectation -- and for Fox, an attainable one, believe it or not. Yes, even without Caldwell-Pope.

There’s still enough talent on the roster to do better than this past year’s 15-17 overall record. Point guard Charles Mann was on the SEC all-freshman team, shooting guard Kenny Gaines has star potential, and small forward Brandon Morris was a starter. All three will be sophomores next year. Nemi Djurisic, who will be a junior, can be a very good forward if he’s more consistent. There aren’t any program changers in the recruiting class, but there could be some contributors.

The Bulldogs still sorely lack a strong post presence, even if Marcus Thornton returns healthy next year. The opinion here is that Fox should just commit to a smaller lineup and an up-tempo style, and if the 6-foot-7 Djurisic is the team’s tallest starter, then so be it.

McGarity also expressed the hope that the returning players will embrace the opportunity available with Caldwell-Pope’s departure. He compared it to the Georgia football team, specifically the defense, which lost so many players to graduation and three early to the NFL.

“There’s no one that’s guaranteed a spot, so I guarantee you this summer you’re going to see some people working harder than they ever have before, because they know there’s an opportunity to play,” McGarity said. “I think you’ll see that in basketball.”

Fox is banking on that. The absence of Caldwell-Pope means there won’t be a star to carry the team, so this team will have to be one greater than the sum of its parts. Sometimes that works out. A lot of times, it’s just a flailing hope on a team with not much talent.

But here’s the thing for Georgia: Let’s say next year’s team, which projects to have just one senior, Donte’ Williams, plays well enough that it offers hope for the next season? What if the record isn’t great -- think in the neighborhood of 16-19 wins -- but there’s clearly enough talent to make a run the following year? What do you do then?

That’s why McGarity chooses his words carefully. Any decision on a coach, at least those not involving off-field issues, comes down to whether the program is better off with a new coach and not simply punishing the old one for a bad record.

That’s why Fox likely will keep his job after next year as long as there’s improvement.

But, first, it’s up to Fox and his players to make that happen.

Contact Seth Emerson at semerson@macon.com.

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