There is regional proof that Georgia can become a basketball power.
Three states north of Georgia, in the college town of Charlottesville, resides the University of Virginia. Coming off of a 10-18 season in 2008-09, Cavaliers head coach Dave Leitao was pressured into resigning. That same season, Georgia fired Dennis Felton.
Both Virginia and Georgia used the services of Parker Executive Search to help identify a basketball coach. Both programs picked coaches who didn’t hold too big of a profile. Virginia landed Tony Bennett, a coach who had a Sweet 16 appearance to his name in three seasons at Washington State. Georgia hired Mark Fox, who appeared in three NCAA Tournaments at Nevada.
Nine years have passed and Fox, who has made two NCAA Tournament appearances at Georgia with zero wins, hasn’t seen his proverbial seat any hotter than it is now. At 13-11 overall, Fox may need nothing short of a miracle in order to be Georgia’s head coach in 2018-19. Bennett’s Cavaliers are the No. 1 in the country for the first time since 1982.
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Nine years ago, there was no indication Georgia was, or would have been, interested in Bennett. The Bulldogs offered Mike Anderson, who decided to stay at Missouri and later took the head coaching job at Arkansas. Parker Executive Search later found reason to believe Fox would be a good candidate for Georgia and Bennett a fine fit for Virginia.
Nothing was ever there to suggest Bennett would have been interested in Georgia. Bennett actually turned down overtures from LSU and Indiana the season prior. Therefore, suggesting Georgia missed on Bennett wouldn’t necessarily be fair.
And following Bennett’s hiring, a Richmond Times Dispatch writer quoted a Virginia “supporter” as saying Bennett “might turn out to be a great coach, but he is hardly the home run that we were looking for. Where is the 'wow' factor?” But nine years later it’s safe to say Virginia is pleased with who Parker Executive Search helped identify.
Georgia, on the other hand, appears ready to hand the program off to someone else, barring an unforeseen sequence of events.
Virginia and Georgia, before and after 2009
Virginia has some relevant basketball history. Prior to Bennett’s hiring, the Cavaliers went to 16 NCAA Tournaments, which included two trips to the Final Four.
Georgia, pre-Fox, had been to 10 NCAA Tournaments with one Final Four appearance. Neither program consistently won at a high level until the 1980s. That’s when Virginia, under Terry Holland, built a competitive program that saw the likes of Jeff Lamp, Ralph Sampson and Bryant Stith come through. In the 1990s, Jeff Jones kept Virginia relevant for a while. In the end, he didn’t win enough as he was fired in 1998.
From there, the Cavaliers endured a down period that saw one NCAA Tournament appearance from Jones’ ouster until Bennett’s hiring. While Virginia had a decent run for a decade and a half, it was nowhere near considered a blue blood. Georgia has long been blood for others. The Bulldogs enjoyed sporadic success under Hugh Durham, which included landing Dominique Wilkins and a Final Four run in 1983.
The Bulldogs were exciting under Tubby Smith but that lasted only two seasons. The Jim Harrick years saw some of the best basketball ever played at Stegeman Coliseum, only for it to come crashing down due to scandal. Felton was brought in to clean up the mess. And Fox was then asked to build a foundation. Neither Bennett nor Fox walked into great positions. Both rosters were void of the kind of talent needed to win immediately.
Both coaches were expected to need time to construct winning programs. And Fox actually made it to the NCAA Tournament first, in 2011. The 10th-seeded Bulldogs, however, were bounced in the first round to seventh-seeded Washington. Virginia would reach the big dance for the first time under Bennett the following year. So how exactly did Virginia wind up the nation’s top-ranked team while Fox’s future is in jeopardy?
Both coaches are defensive-minded. Both coaches want to dictate the pace of play on offense, evidenced by their KenPom adjusted tempo rankings – Georgia is No. 339 in the country and Virginia is dead last at No. 351. This style is obviously working for Virginia. It’s not for Georgia. But over the past nine years, Bennett has pulled a couple of key prospects from the state of Georgia. The Cavaliers’ top rebounder this year, Isaiah Wilkins, is from Lilburn. Georgia didn’t offer Wilkins a spot.
The best recruit Bennett ever landed was Greater Atlanta Christian’s Malcolm Brogdon, who became one of Virginia’s best players in program history. A four-star recruit with a handful of midtier Power 5 offers, Brogdon chose Virginia over Georgia, and others, in 2011. That happened to be the same year the Bulldogs landed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Georgia would have gladly taken both Caldwell-Pope and Brogdon in the same class. And who knows – the trajectory of Georgia basketball may have been totally different if the two of them could have played a couple of seasons together. Virginia also beat Georgia out for four-star shooter Evan Nolte in 2012.
While Caldwell-Pope became a first-round pick (Detroit Pistons) after a pair of losing seasons at Georgia, Brogdon would see himself go in the second round to the Milwaukee Bucks after leading Virginia to the Elite Eight in 2016. But even with Bennett taking those prospects out of the Peach State, it isn’t like Virginia has recruited at the level of ACC powers Duke and North Carolina.
He’s landed one top-10 recruiting class since arriving to Virginia, while posting an average class ranking of 44. In this same time period, Georgia’s average ranking is 55.
The little things
As mentioned, both Bennett and Fox preach defense first. Both coaches will push the floor with the right personnel, but it hasn’t been emphasized. The difference is how each offense functions.
This season, Virginia leads the nation in fewest turnovers at only 8.9 per game. Only seven teams average fewer than 10 turnovers per game. And that’s been a central theme for Bennett’s teams – superb defense while valuing the basketball. While Virginia holds teams to only 52.8 points per game, the best in the nation, Georgia has posted a respectable average of 67.2 points per game, which ranks 56th overall.
The difference? The Bulldogs haven’t protected the basketball well enough, regardless of the style of basketball it has employed. This season, Georgia has averaged 13.1 turnovers per game, ranking 174th out of 351 teams.
And this isn’t an outlier. Last year, Georgia ranked 169th at 13.0 turnovers per game. In 2015-16, the Bulldogs were 215th in the nation in turnovers per game, also at 13.0. In 2014-15, it was 200th at 12.8. You get the point. And with this in mind, it is also easy to see why Virginia would be posting the nation’s 11th-best assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.54.
Meanwhile, Georgia, which only averages 12.8 assists per game (240th nationally), ranks 227th in the nation at 0.97. Virginia doesn’t light up the scoreboard and isn’t flashy on offense. But it is fundamentally sound and takes care of the basketball. Georgia, over the past nine years, has had trouble doing so.
There are those who will continue to say Georgia can never become a great basketball program because of the prominence of the football team.
The problem with that notion is that Virginia has slowly become a great basketball school. And it was neither a football or basketball program. Virginia didn’t become a No. 1 team and a top-tier ACC contender overnight. It did so slowly, but surely, much like Georgia envisioned Fox doing when he was brought on board in 2009.
Yes, it can happen at Georgia.
If it can happen at Virginia, it can happen anywhere.