ATHENS — From the Jim Harrick scandal that resulted in the forfeiture of all victories in 2002-03 to the Dennis Felton era, Georgia basketball has been treading in mediocrity for the better part of the last decade.
This season, however, Mark Fox appears to have the Bulldogs pointing in a winning direction in his second season at Georgia. After a convincing 86-64 victory over Mississippi State on Saturday, Georgia is 14-4 (3-2 in Southeastern Conference) and on track for their first winning season since ’06-07, when it finished 19-14.
In fact, the start to this season has reached historical proportions. The Bulldogs went undefeated in the month of December, winning all seven games, and the only other Georgia teams to do so were the ’82-83 and ’02-03 teams, two of the most successful in program history.
Fox, in his seventh season as a head coach — he spent five seasons at Nevada, leading the Wolf Pack to three NCAA tournament appearances — believes the difference in this year’s Bulldogs is confidence.
“I think they’ve had a belief in themselves they were going to have a good team really since last spring,” Fox said after Saturday’s win. “I don’t know if that came from the fact we won some key games last year, or because I think they saw we had such a complete roster, but I think they really functioned really since last spring like they expected to have a good team.”
Though the Bulldogs finished just 14-17 last year in Fox’s first season in Athens, they beat two ranked SEC opponents (No. 8 Tennessee and No. 18 Vanderbilt) along with conference rivals Florida, Alabama, South Carolina and Arkansas.
They’ve carried that momentum to this season, and enjoyed a nine-game winning streak that included a 77-70 win over No. 10 Kentucky. The win over the Wildcats put Georgia in the top 25 for the first time since the infamous ’02-03 season, though their No. 24 ranking was short-lived.
Regardless of their national ranking, the Bulldogs have a legitimate shot to finish with their first winning conference record in nine years, and their first winning road record in 10 years (they’re currently 4-1) after going 0-11 last year.
More importantly, the fan base is excited, an emotion they haven’t felt since the 2007-08 season, when Georgia surprisingly won the SEC tournament to claim an NCAA Tournament berth despite a 13-16 regular season record.
“The energy in the building and the crowds have been terrific,” Fox said. “In college basketball, it’s a huge factor in the game, and we’ve had great students, great crowds, great energy and I think people are enjoying the games.”
Trey Thompkins, a 6-10 junior forward who contemplated entering the NBA draft in the offseason, said the excitement in the stands plays a big role in the team’s success.
““The fact we have a crowd means so much,” said Thompkins, who leads the Bulldogs with 17.6 points a game to go with 7.1 rebounds. “They’re a sixth man and they help us with rallies and runs. Coach Fox does a great job and will continue to do a great job of keeping the fans in the game by making sure we do our job every night.”
Mike “Big Dawg” Woods, a fixture in Athens as the bald man who paints a Bulldog on his head, has attended Georgia basketball games for 40 years. He notices a difference in the crowd this season and has faith in where the program is headed.
“There’s more energy, there’s more people without a doubt and now we got a shot,” Woods said. “(Fox) has put that spirit back in our heart and we’re ready to go.”
At halftime of Saturday’s game, past Georgia basketball greats were honored at midcourt. A lot are taking notice of what Fox is doing with the program. Lem Howard (’89-91) was a member of the first Bulldogs team to win the regular season SEC title in 1990.
“I see an intensity in the players,” Howard said. “Coach Fox has committed to players getting better, and I think the sky is the limit as long as they can play together, focus on defense and listen to the coach.”
As the Bulldogs enter the thick of conference play with their sights set on a postseason run, Fox is making sure his players keep it simple.
“We’re just trying to play the game the right way,” Fox said. “We try to play unselfishly and play with extra effort. I think the system we’ve implemented gives everyone a role and these kids have bought into it. And I think they’re having fun, and that’s the main thing I want them to do is enjoy this process.”