Fox has done a terrific job in rebuilding Georgia Dick Vitale (February 20, 2011)
The first time Mark Fox’s Georgia Bulldogs played a Thursday night game this season, my reaction was succinct. The second time the Red and Black played a Thursday night game this season, I had a pleasant evening in Macon with my son. The third time the Classic City Canines will play a Thursday night game this season, it will be on the road against the Florida Gators. Well, then.
Actually, with all due respect to Jack Kerouac, Charles Kuralt, and presumably other similarly-situated fellows possessing strange last names beginning with a "K" and containing a "U," the "on the road" part of the foregoing formulation does not appear to be a significant impediment to a Bulldog victory. With their weekend win in Knoxville, the Fox Hounds carded their seventh road victory in a single season for the first time since any current Georgia student-athlete was in elementary school. This should shock exactly no one, since Mark Fox-coached teams have gone 53-34 on opponents’ home courts over the course of his career, but it’s nice to be able to point to something the Hoop Hounds do particularly well. Incidentally, Coach Fox’s 60 per cent lifetime winning clip is even more impressive in light of the fact that last year’s Bulldogs went 0-11 in away games, including a 16-point drubbing in Gainesville. Clearly, the 2009-2010 campaign was the exception rather than the rule.
Continuing a season fraught with travel problems, Coach Fox and his charges will sail into the heart of darkness like Captain Benjamin Willard and his crew searching for Colonel Walter Kurtz---hey, another odd surname with a "K" and a "U"!---in order to tangle with a Sunshine State Saurian squad that required an overtime miracle to escape Athens with a win. Nevertheless, win the Floridians did, and they have done so at a clip unmatched by any other Eastern Division squad. Following Sunday’s win in Baton Rouge, the Gators sport ledgers of 21-5 overall and 10-2 in league play, both conference bests.
With the Bulldogs poised to benefit from the "soft bubble," Thursday’s contest represents a golden opportunity for the Red and Black to lock up an NCAA Tournament bid by pulling off the latest in a lengthening line of recent upsets against the No. 14 Gators. Despite Florida’s frontrunner status, the two teams in many ways are matched every bit as evenly as their previous double-overtime showdown suggests. For instance, the Sunshine State Saurians came into Sunday’s game (in which they scored 68 points) averaging 71.0 points per contest, whereas the Fox Hounds left Knoxville averaging 69.9 points per outing. Likewise, Florida’s .458 field goal percentage and 38.2 rebounding average through 25 games matched almost exactly Georgia’s .454 field goal percentage and 38.3 rebounding average in the campaign’s initial 26 clashes.
As of the close of business on Saturday, the Bulldogs and the Gators were the top two teams in the conference in assists per contest and two of the league’s three best squads in rebounding margin. (The 31.7 boards per game allowed by the Orange and Blue through 25 outings were the least in the SEC.) Where there is a disparity likely to allow the Sunshine State Saurians to turn the Stephen C. O’Connell Center into a house of horrors worthy of a film by Stanley Kubrick---son of a gun; the thing with the "K" and the "U" strikes again!---is on defense: Florida arrived in the Pelican State (where the Gators held the Bayou Bengals to 61 points) allowing 61.8 points per game, the second-fewest permitted by any squad in the conference. Fortunately, there is a "D" in "Bulldogs," as well; Georgia ended the weekend holding the opposition to .398 shooting from the field, the third-lowest such percentage in the league.
Whether the Gators will be able to improve upon that figure in Thursday night’s outing depends largely upon the project to get the injured Chandler Parsons ready to play. Before being sidelined for the LSU game, the senior forward was averaging a team-high 33.5 minutes per game, and he was making the most of that time on the court as Florida’s leading rebounder (with 7.7 per game, including a team-best 5.3 defensive boards per contest) and second-best shooter (his .483 field goal percentage trailed only Vernon Macklin’s .583 field goal percentage through 25 games). Add to those numbers his team-leading 3.6 assists per outing, and it becomes clear that the Gators without Chandler Parsons are like a "Taxi" episode without Latka Gravas. (That reminds me: Andy Kaufman also qualifies for inclusion in the odd surname group.)
Finally, with respect to the coaching matchup between Mark Fox and Billy Donovan, I am reminded of what I wrote just prior to the hiring of Coach Fox; namely, that Georgia needed to bring in the Bulldogs’ equivalent of Lon Kruger, in order to raise the profile of the program and pave the way for the eventual hiring of the Red and Black version of Billy Donovan. At first, I thought Mark Fox would turn out to be our Lon Kruger, but now I allow for the possibility that perhaps Mark Fox is our Billy Donovan.
The best way for Coach Fox to prove that, of course, is to beat the Gators’ Coach Donovan. He did it in Athens a year ago; now, it’s time for him to do it on the road with a team that has no fear of facing foes in away games. (Say . . . it occurs to me that Lon Kruger is another guy with a strange name starting with a "K" and containing a "U." I knew that theme was going somewhere.)
The Gators will host the Bulldogs in the O’Dome beginning at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday night, with television coverage of the contest being provided by ESPN2.
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