FanHouse Top 30: No. 27 Georgia
"We've got some hype right now," the second-year Georgia coach cautioned at a preseason press conference, "but that doesn't get you very far on game night."
As unlikely as it might seem for a program that's been to the NCAA tournament just three times this century and had a worse year on the road than any team this side of the Washington Generals, high expectations may be the weightiest problem facing the Bulldogs.
After all, these are the headiest of days at Georgia.
On the court, Georgia, not the league's big brother programs at Kentucky, Florida or Tennessee, have two players on the league's all-SEC first team. The conference's player of the year, Trey Thompkins, wears black and red, while the Bulldogs were picked to finish third in competitive half of the league, the SEC East.
Off the court, Georgia completed a $13-million pimp-my-stadium upgrade to Stegeman Coliseum.
Georgia basketball has never looked better. We think. After all, as Fox cautioned, hype means nothing on game night.
Yet after a single year under Fox, the former Nevada coach, the Bulldog program seems on the verge of a breakout season. It's certainly a heck of a lot more self-assured than the mess he inherited last season.
"I think that this team, they didn't have a lot of confidence [a year ago], they didn't have a lot of faith in themselves or each other," Fox said. "I don't think were functioning like winning people a year ago. I think now if you walk in our lockerroom, you see guys that believe in themselves, that believe each other, that believe in the team."
The Dawgs are led by Thompkins, a 6-foot-10 junior forward who is, despite a below-the-radar national profile, the nation's best inside-outside presence (Thompkins, actual first name Howard should you be so bold, was fourth in the SEC in rebounding last year and also drilled better than 37 percent of his 3-pointers). Meanwhile fellow first-teamer Travis Leslie, a 6-4 swingman, may be the most exciting player in college basketball. Don't take our word for it (take Youtube's and DeMarcus Cousins, the fellow with the footprint on his shoulder). Both players considered the NBA draft over the summer, but both deferred.
This year, the duo will have help in the backcourt. Unlike last year's team that wore out Ricky McPhee and Dustin Ware by season's end, Georgia will have a better rotation on the perimeter, according to Fox. Gerald Robinson, an electric point guard who sat out last season after transferring from Tennessee State, could start immediately alongside Ware, playing either guard position. Robinson's ability to penetrate should open the floor, if he can keep teams honest on his so-so long range jumpshot. When he drives, junior college transfer and sharpshooter Sherrard Brantley will be on the perimeter for open looks.
But according to Fox, the new-look 'Dawgs begin with defense, an area he said his team didn't do well enough in last year. The numbers agree, particularly on the perimeter, where Georgia created little pressure last season (307th in turnover percentage).
One number above all stands out, however: Zero. As in the number of true road games the team won last season.
" You have to be a good basketball team to win away," Fox said. "You have to be complete. Some things I didn't think we did well last year. I didn't think we defended well at all. To win on the road, you have to defend."
Against other teams. And, for this season, against the weight of expectations.
"You always have expectations," Fox said. "It's just that this year people expect us to be good. Last year we weren't expected to be good, so we spent the year proving everybody wrong. This year we want to prove everybody right. But the bottom line is athletes, coaches, usually expect more out of yourself than anybody else does."
Most Important Player: Leslie. He looks great in the highlights, now it's a matter of looking great even when no one is keeping tabs. "He'll certainly have spectacular moments here and there," Fox said of his most exciting player, "but I want to see him more consistent in the unspectacular ways."
Question to be Answered: Can the Bulldogs finally win on the road? The Bulldogs have exactly one true road win during the Obama administration, during the span of two coaches. Fox says it's the next step in the team's improvement, but poor road records are a red flag for the NCAA tournament selection committee.
Best-Case Scenario: Thompkins and Leslie are both among the best players in the nation and the team's perimeter depth lets the Bulldogs run over team after team, led by Robinson's strong play off the dribble. If it all comes together, the Bulldogs are a dark horse for the Final Four. Overly optimistic? Maybe, but Florida coach Billy Donovan has already said the 'Dawgs might be the best team in the SEC.
Worst-Case Scenario: Another season like 2010. Flashy offense, little defense, tired perimeter players. A year older and a year further into Mark Fox's system almost guarantees an improvement, but worst-case, the 'Dawgs have another NIT bid in them.
FanHouse Projection: Georgia gets tougher to face as the season goes on, make a deep run in the SEC tournament and combine all those pieces Fox keeps talking about into a Sweet 16 season and springboard for the program's revival.