Mark Fox draws praise of peers during Bulldogs’ historic SEC run

ATHENS — Coach of the year kind of stuff.

That’s what we saw from Georgia’s Mark Fox this season. Yes, Florida went 18-0 in SEC play and the Gators’ are the nation’s No. 1-ranked team. There is no arguing that Billy Donovan will be deserving of that award and any others that will likely come his way.

But for good, old fashioned, roll-up-your-sleeves, quality hard work amid difficult circumstances, there are very few coaches anywhere who can claim to have done a better job that than Fox.

Only longtime observers of Georgia basketball can probably fully appreciate what his team managed to accomplish this season. Only one Bulldogs’ team in the 81-year history of the school’s association with the Southeastern Conference has won more conference games. The one that did, the 1990 Bulldogs, won the regular-season championship (with a 13-5 record). Just to provide perspective, only five previous teams in the history of the program managed to win 11 or more conference game and one of those had to vacate them due to improprieties.

This bunch tied Kentucky for second place. With its 69-61 win over LSU in Baton Rouge on Saturday, Georgia finished 18-12 overall and 12-6 in the SEC. It was the Bulldogs’ fourth conference road victory of the season and their eighth in last 10 games of the season.

As a result, Georgia captured the No. 3 seed in this week’s SEC Tournament, which will happened to played in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome. Because of the double-bye that goes to league’s top four finishes, the Bulldogs won’t play until Friday, likely against Vanderbilt or Ole Miss.

As for postseason speculation, it still doesn’t look great for Georgia, not unless it at least reaches the tournament finals and maybe not even then. And people will continue to bash the overall strength of the SEC this year. But to be focused on that would be missing the point.

The Bulldogs — and Fox — did what they did in the season immediately after losing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to the NBA draft as a sophomore. Not only was he the previous team’s best player, he was deemed the best player in the entire SEC.

That contributed in no small way to Georgia’s slow start this season. To be sure, that 1-4 beginning, which included losses to Georgia Tech, Davidson, Temple and Nebraska, has dogged the Bulldogs all year. With additional losses to Colorado and George Washington, Georgia entered SEC play with a 6-6 record.

But the Bulldogs have little to be ashamed of from then on. A 59-54 home loss to Vanderbilt on Jan. 29 is about the only hiccup in SEC play. Then to win like they won at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, that was the kind of galvanizing victories that can set up a team for bigger things down the line.

“They’ve been very committed to the process and so I think they’re just excited that they’ve had some success,” Fox said of his players.

That all this took place in Fox’s fifth season, when there was hot-seat talk and criticism of the staff’s recruiting skills, makes it all the more impressive. Keep in mind, this is all happening while Georgia is graduating all its players and generally experiencing zero off-court issues.

It certainly has gotten the attention of other coaches around league. Last week Kentucky’s John Calipari said “nobody wants to play Georgia right now.” South Carolina’s Frank Martin, who’s been in the news for the wrong reasons lately, raved about the job Fox has done.

“Last year, all those guys, (Charles) Mann, (Kenny) Gaines, they were all little puppies,” said Martin, whose team got thumped twice by the Bulldogs. “They had a lottery pick that kind of saved them. But as this year went on, I thought their team just got better and better. And now they’re a very good basketball team.”

The SEC tournament returns to Atlanta’s back yard again this year. Expect to hear similar praise about Fox and other coaches pointing to the Bulldogs as a team to watch out for.

But regardless of what happens in this do-or-die affair this week, the season has already been an unqualified success for Georgia. And for Fox, especially.

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