Georgia continued its mid-to-late season slide with its sixth loss in seven games.
This time, it was a 78-61 defeat to No. 8 Auburn. Unlike the first meeting on Jan. 20, which saw Georgia lead by as many as 16 before losing by 14, the Tigers were able to build an early lead and do plenty to keep enough distance from the Bulldogs. Auburn was paced by guard Jared Harper, who scored 24 points.
The Bulldogs struggled defensively, allowing Auburn to shoot 50.9 percent from the field. For the second consecutive game, the Bulldogs allowed the opposing team to sink 11 3-pointers. Georgia head coach Mark Fox opened his post-game news conference by saying his team's ability to defend and rebound have not been up to his standard over the past three games.
He was then asked how much of that falls on the coaching staff. Seemingly annoyed with the question, Fox did state that the responsibility lies with him.
“It all falls on the coaching staff, you know. It all falls on me,” Fox said. “I’ll take 100 percent of the responsibility—100, OK? That’s an accurate statement. That’s on me, OK? That’s totally on the coach to make sure we have the scheme and are ready to go. Now the individual has to emotionally and mentally get themselves ready to play. We’ve got to find the way to push those buttons. The responsibility totally falls on me.”
Back in August, athletics director Greg McGarity sat down with The Telegraph for a wide-ranging interview, with part of it including why he decided to bring head coach Mark Fox back for a ninth season. At the time, McGarity expressed confidence that Fox would move the Bulldogs over the hump and into the NCAA Tournament.
In fact, McGarity was asked, point-blank, if Fox needed to make the NCAA Tournament in order to retain his job in 2018-19. McGarity wouldn't state a specific requirement, but did offer some insight into his thinking.
“We know what’s expected at the University of Georgia,” McGarity said. “You don’t have to go out there and define that. That would be an insult to our coaches. They know what they need to do. And I just want to see a program that’s moving forward in the right direction.”
Twenty-four games into the 2017-18 season, it is evident this team is not moving in the right direction. In nine seasons, this is easily Fox's most talented roster. Yet the Bulldogs are once again in the same position below the bubble line for the NCAA Tournament.
Enough just might be enough.
Now, as crazy as it sounds, there is a path for Georgia (13-11, 4-8 SEC) to still somehow wind up in the NCAA Tournament. But that involves an improbable run with wins over Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas A&M. The confidence level of that happening is slim to none. But crazier things have happened in this sport.
As for any potential decision on Fox's future, that's for McGarity, and the powers that be, to decide.
Effort amid frustration
The Georgia players gave it their all on the floor yet again. Effort from his team has never been a problem under Fox.
For instance, guard Juwan Parker hit a 3-pointer and drew an offensive foul late in the game, even when it was all but wrapped up on Auburn's end. But as the season has carried on, players have exhibited signs of frustration on the floor. And who could blame them? This was a season Georgia should have contended to finish in the top five or six of the SEC. Instead, a bottom-four finish is looking realistic.
The wins haven't materialized and the offensive consistency never showed. Against a good team like Auburn, it was magnified even further given the stakes at this point of the season.
But give Georgia's players the credit for not tanking. It would be easy to do so.
“I haven't given up anything in my life,” forward Yante Maten said. “Being a leader of this team I'm going to relay that message that we don't give up. That's not how we roll at Georgia. At the end of the day we made our own bed. We have to fix it.”
As for the game itself
Auburn (22-3, 10-2) was without its star, SEC Player of the Year candidate Bryce Brown, due to a sprained shoulder. Being without Brown prevented the Tigers from pushing the tempo on offense. It didn't prevent the Tigers from scoring from long range.
The Tigers were still able to hit 44 percent of its 3-point attempts. And Georgia, quite frankly, didn't do a good enough job contesting the perimeter shots. For much of the year that has been a problem, players defending the outside shots with their hands down instead of up.
Georgia's defense held up for only so long. And over the final stretch of the game, Auburn rolled to a blowout.
“Defense is all heart, and a little bit of smarts,” Parker said. “We got to find our heart, I guess. We've got to go to Oz or something, I don't know.”
'It's great to be an Auburn Tiger'
McGarity stood on the floor looking up as the Georgia fans were leaving the arena. A loud chant broke out, with only two minutes left to go in the game.
“It's great to be an Auburn Tiger.”
There were plenty of Auburn fans inside Stegeman Colisuem as it was for the game. And given the sudden uncertainty about this coaching staff and direction of the program, it has to be a visual McGarity considers when evaluating the state of the team.
If Georgia has one positive to take away from this game it's the fact that freshman Rayshaun Hammonds put in a solid outing.
Hammonds hadn't contributed much in conference play but put in 14 points on 6-of-10 shooting. Hammonds, who earned a start Saturday afternoon, came to Georgia as a top-50 player out of Norcross.
“He’s had a very tough month,” Fox said. “I don’t know how many minutes our freshmen played tonight. Probably 55 or so. We’re playing a lot of those guys in some key times and some mistakes a freshman makes can be costly. I thought offensively he finally came through today. He’s got to learn to play both ends, but he took a step forward offensively for sure.”