ATHENS — The season began with a string of bad losses that seemingly doomed the Georgia basketball team from the start. It ended with the Bulldogs being applauded off their home court by fans appreciative of a surprisingly strong season.
Yes, it ended with a loss in the NIT. But the fact that the Bulldogs made it that far with just one senior provided hope that this 20-win season wasn’t the high point.
Head coach Mark Fox, speaking a few minutes after the season ended Saturday, agreed that an NCAA tournament bid was reasonable goal for next year.
“We have enough back to make that a very realistic goal for this team,” Fox said. “We finally will return lots of productivity.”
The emphasis being on “finally.”
Last year, Georgia lost sophomore Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the SEC player of the year, to the NBA draft. Three years ago, it was juniors Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie bolting for the pros after Georgia reached the NCAA tournament.
This year appears a different story. No Georgia players are listed among the draft’s top 100 prospects by ESPN. Donte’ Williams was the only senior on this year’s team. He was the second-leading rebounder but only the sixth-leading scorer. The team also saw John Cannon, a little-used junior, leave the program two weeks ago.
Georgia’s best players were sophomore guards Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines and junior forward Marcus Thornton. Assuming they all return, along with players like forwards Brandon Morris and Nemanja Djurisic, the Bulldogs should be in position to start next year strong.
That part will be vitally important, as the Bulldogs have learned painfully the past two years.
They went 6-7 in non-conference play last year, then went 9-9 in the SEC. This year, they went 6-6 before going 12-6 in SEC play, and a better non-conference performance likely would have led to an NCAA bid.
Fox answered “Yeah, I think so” when asked if the experience back should help the team avoid another poor start.
“We don’t have the inexperience that we’ve had the last couple years. We have more guys back, and that should hopefully get us off to a better start,” Fox said. “But we’ve gotta have a great summer so those guys can be better players.”
Mann and Gaines appear to have the ability to be All-SEC players. Mann, the point guard, has to improve his assist-to-turnover ratio but proved an adept scorer this year. Gaines emerged as a potent scoring threat and able defender.
Thornton’s play in the post was a huge reason for the team’s turnaround this year. The fact he took a medical redshirt last year proved a blessing to the program, which gets its best post player for one more year.
Morris and Djurisic continued to be solid contributors. Freshman point guard J.J. Frazier ended up being a spark off the bench and should see more action next year, playing together more with Mann, according to Fox.
But who will join them? That’s the key question for Georgia’s offseason.
Georgia has two scholarships to give for next year but has not signed anybody yet. Fox said the Bulldogs could save one of those scholarships for next year.
“We’ll just see how it works out,” Fox said.
But the immediate priority for the program is getting another big man, even if it’s just a raw, big body. Highly regarded big men aren’t usually available this late in the recruiting cycle, but Fox and his staff will try to lure one.
“We need to get another frontline player,” Fox said. “We’re not as big, I don’t want to be as big when I inherited (the roster), because you’re just so slow that way. You’ve gotta have an element of size to protect the basket and rebound. You’ve gotta have guys that can run, but we need to have some size, for sure.”
One issue for the offseason is whether Fox receives a contract extension. He is signed for two more seasons. Fox is 85-77 in five seasons at Georgia, leading it to the NCAA tournament once and the NIT once and producing two 20-win seasons.
It’s not the best resume in the world, but Fox is only the second Georgia men’s basketball head coach since World War II to have a winning record after five years in Athens. Hugh Durham is the other. That doesn’t include Tubby Smith, who left after two years for Kentucky, or Ron Jirsa or Jim Harrick, fired after two and four years, respectively.
Fox is expected to meet with athletics director Greg McGarity at some point, as they do at the end of every season. McGarity said Monday a date for the meeting had not been decided yet.
Prior to the season, McGarity said he wanted to see “improvement” this season. That happened, and right now there’s no reason not to expect further improvement next season.
“I thought that this team certainly made a lot of progress,” Fox said. “They were a lot more fun to coach than the NCAA team was, to be honest with you. But they’re committed to doing it the right way. They’re committed to trying to win and get better, and our summer approach will be critical to how good next year’s team is.”