ATHENS -- Mark Fox doesn’t like the comparison, and it certainly isn’t a perfect one. Still, with Tennessee coming into Stegeman Coliseum Tuesday night and Georgia on a hot streak, it’s appropriate to pose the question: Is Georgia men’s basketball becoming the next Tennessee?
An SEC East team from a state school which many consider with little recent success is taken over by a new head coach. Led by players recruited by the previous head coach, the team sees an immediate turnaround.
It happened at Tennessee five years ago, and it’s happening now at Georgia. And Tennessee’s success was sustained the next few years, and there are signs it could be at Georgia, too.
Two years ago, the Bulldogs were also an afterthought in SEC men’s basketball. Fox was plucked out of Nevada, and halfway through his second season, Georgia is 13-3, coming off an impressive win at Mississippi and already owning a win over Kentucky.
Certainly, this season has a lot left in it, and the Bulldogs have plenty of work left to earn an NCAA tournament trip. But the fact that Tuesday night’s game against Tennessee could have East Division title ramifications speaks to what Fox has accomplished.
“Coach Pearl’s a great coach, and Coach Fox is a great coach,” Georgia star Trey Thompkins said. “They know how to react to their players and they know how to get their players to react to them. Coach Fox is getting the most out of us. He always has. And Coach Pearl has definitely gotten the most out of them over the years.”
Thompkins and teammate Travis Leslie, a fellow junior, were both in Athens when Fox arrived. Fox is winning largely with players recruited by Dennis Felton -- just as Pearl won right away with players recruited by his predecessor, Buzz Peterson.
But Fox has started putting his own recruiting imprint on the program, just as Pearl eventually did. This year, Georgia’s third-leading scorer is guard Gerald Robinson, a transfer from Tennessee State. Freshman Marcus Thornton has a lot of potential, and Fox has inked Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a consensus top 20 national recruit.
Fox blanched a bit at the comparison with Tennessee.
“I would say that we’re not modeling ourselves after what they’ve done,” he said, adding that he wasn’t sure of Tennessee’s record before Pearl arrived.
Here’s the answer: Tennessee had three winning seasons in the five before Pearl’s arrival, but only one winning SEC mark and not one NCAA trip.
In Pearl’s first year, the Volunteers went 22-8, won the SEC East and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament. It has gone back to the NCAAs each of the following four seasons, including a run to the Elite Eight last year.
This year, Pearl has been hit with major off-court problems, as recruiting violations led the SEC to suspend him for the first eight conference games. He will not be on the bench Tuesday at Stegeman Coliseum.
As for Fox, the comparison he prefers is with Nevada, where Fox was an assistant under Trent Johnson. Nevada struggled its first two seasons under Johnson, then the Wolf Pack reached the Sweet 16 in his fifth year. Johnson then left for Stanford, Fox was elevated to head coach, and the Wolf Pack had three NCAA tournament trips and five winning seasons before Fox took the Georgia job.
“If I compare us to anything, it’s how when Trent and I first went to Nevada, with how we built that program,” Fox said. “Because that’s the only one I’m really familiar with, and that’s kind of with a hard-hat approach.”
He’s trying to repeat that approach now, as Georgia is one win away from tying its total from last year. The Bulldogs have done it by winning close games and on the road, two of their major failings last year.
So the next step is learning to deal with success.
“We still have to know how to react to success. Just like you have to react to adversity,” Thompkins said. “Coach Fox always talks to us about that. And I think we’re starting to become a mature team, so we can deal with it.”
Notes: Fox shrugged the effect of Tennessee not having Pearl on the sideline. “If it were in reverse, I don’t think our players would miss me,” Fox said. “This isn’t the first time, they’re probably used to it now. I don’t think it’ll affect them much.” ... Chris Barnes, who missed the Mississippi game to attend a funeral, was back at practice Monday and will play against Tennessee.