ATHENS – Georgia will head into the SEC tournament as the most surprising team in the conference, going from 11th in the preseason poll to tied for second in the final standings. So it's no surprise that SEC coaches are lavish in their praise of the Bulldogs and their head coach, Mark Fox.
South Carolina's Frank Martin, never one to hold back, was the most vociferous.
“I don’t think they get the credit they deserve,” said Martin, whose team was swept by Georgia this season. “Everyone says you need to schedule good in nonconference play. Well Georgia did that. And they went nose-to-nose with Davidson. Last time I checked Davidson was what, 17-1 in league play.”
Davidson did win the Southern Conference regular-season championship, but was upset in the tournament semifinals on Sunday.
Martin then pointed to Georgia’s “heartbreaker” loss to Nebraska, appears on the way to an NCAA bid after its Sunday upset over Wisconsin.
“People are raving about Nebraska. Well Georgia must have done something pretty good to go nose-to-nose with Nebraska,” Martin said.
Finally, Martin moved on to extolling the virtues of Fox, now in his fifth year at Georgia.
“Mark doesn’t get the credit he deserves. We’re in the business where everyone wants that instant gratification. Let me tell you something: Mark has built a program there. He has a system in place. He has young kids who are becoming grown-ups as we are watching them.
“And I think (Fox) is the essence of the strength of our league. Just how good our league is really getting, the consistency that some of the teams in our league are developing.”
Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings said Fox would have been his choice for SEC coach of the year if not for Billy Donovan leading Florida to an 18-0 record. (The awards as voted by SEC coaches will be announced Tuesday.)
"It was unbelievable what Mark's team was able to do this year," Stallings said, via a Vanderbilt spokesman. "Billy going 18-0 doesn't detract from what Mark accomplished and what his team accomplished. It's easily one of the most impressive jobs that's been done in college basketball in the entire country and especially in our league."
Kentucky head coach John Calipari pointed out that when his Kentucky team beat Georgia on Jan. 25 the Bulldogs didn’t have guard Kenny Gaines, their second-leading scorer. Gaines was injured.
“But I’ll tell you, what (Fox) has done, and how they’ve played and to go on the road and win a game that matters – that game (at LSU) mattered – it just tells a lot,” Calipari said. “They struggled early. But it’s a sign of a coach that keeps his team together, and keeps them moving in the right direction. Right now, they believe as much as anyone in our league that they have a chance to win this thing.”
Florida head coach Billy Donovan, whose team routed Georgia on Jan. 14, said he could tell that the Bulldogs were getting better as SEC play began.
“I really liked their team” Donovan said. “Because I thought (point guard Charles) Mann had gotten a lot better, Gaines had kind of evolved intoa guy that would be a legitimate scorer. (Marcus) Thornton, who was hurt most of last year (and they) didn’t get much production from him if any, he started to come into his own. Their personnel had gotten better. Mark’s system I think puts those guys in situations to be very, very successful.
“Even though we won handily at our place I thought they were gonna have a great year.”