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Fox's Hounds Down The Illini.

As you may recall, I am nominally in charge of covering University of Georgia basketball around these parts. Of course, this means occasionally taking up some column space to talk about a sport that, when compared to Mark Richt's team or Dave Perno's group or Suzanne Yoculan and Jay Clark's band of small but limber athletic assassins, comes up a little short. For some time the University of Georgia basketball team has been the redheaded quarterbackk stepchild of the athletic department.

And while the hiring of Mark Fox from Nevada probably shouldn't send you out to swoop up March Madness tickets just yet, Saturday night brought us perhaps the most encouraging signs yet in the Mark Fox era, as the Hoop 'Dawgs downed favored Illinois 70-67 at The Arena at Gwinnett Center.

Paul Westerdawg as always has a great wrapup of the game. And since Paul actually makes it to a lot more basketball games than I do you should probably read his take first. This was my first chance to catch the new look 'Dawgs in action this season, either in person or on TV, and I came away with a few impressions.

  • Our inside game is improved. Since Takais Brown's dismissal this team has been without a consistent inside threat. Sure Dave Bliss was functional during the 2008 SEC tournament run, but this team seems to have several young big guys with serious potential. Five different players logged 12 or more minutes at the forward or center positions. Trey Thompkins scored 21 off the bench is extensive action, hit four key free throws down the stretch and generally looked like he knew what he was doing with the ball in his hands down low. That could be huge once we hit the conference schedule. We outrebounded the Illini 35-26. Curiously, these are the same young big men who looked so lost under Dennis Felton last season. Funny how that happens.
  • There were actual offensive sets. And passing. Sometimes multiple passes in a single possession, even passes with a purpose behind them. I thought I might cry. Oh, I admit it. I did cry.
  • When things seemed to be slipping away late, Mark Fox called a timeout to get his team's collective head back in the right place. Had Dennis Felton been in the building he would have been very, very confused.
  • Illinois was 24-10 last year, earning a #5 seed before being upset by Western Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament. In short, they are the kind of team we need to be able to beat if Georgia basketball is going to progress. The fact that this team resisted the Illini onslaught late (trailing with 35 seconds left), regained its footing, and held on is a very positive sign, an indicator not so much of mental toughness (which Dennis Felton's teams sometimes exhibited), but of actual basketball IQ.
  • I do not believe this is necessarily a watershed, "hobnail boot" win. Coach Fox said it best during his Sunday show when he admitted (and I'm paraphrasing here) "right now we're not as talented as we'd like to be." The difference between Coach Richt's 2001 team and Coach Fox's 2009-2010 team is that the former had all the necessary talent, but needed a motivator and gameplanner. The latter still consists of some square pegs in round holes. There still isn't a strong enough perimeter presence to run Fox's triangle offense. They still turn the ball over more than they can afford to. But a team that can beat Illinois (and hang in against St. John's despite abysmal shooting) should be competitive in a majority of its SEC games this season. A 5-11 conference record would be the Bulldogs' best since 2006-2007, and would represent some significant progress.

Great job, 'Dawgs!