Each year there are about 46 spots open for the NCAA Tournament that are not taken up by one-bid conferences – the Mercers and Woffords of the world. Georgia won't get one of those 46 spots unless it wins three games in a row this coming weekend in Atlanta. Considering the Bulldogs' success in SEC play this year a run like that is hardly out of the question, but it is certainly no guarantee either.
If Georgia can win three games in a row is not what I am writing about today, however. Of course they "can" win three games in a row in order to get into the NCAAs. Still, after a successful conference season where the Dawgs earned the #3 seed in the upcoming SEC Tournament, they will still have to win the conference tournament to get into the NCAAs. Knowing that I think the appropriate question is as follows:
Is being forced to win the SEC Tournament to get into the NCAA Tournament really where Georgia fans want their basketball program to be year in and year out?
Because I hate to burst the bubble that is the feel-good story of the Bulldogs right now, but here goes: The sad reality is that for the last decade – with the exception of the 2011 season – that's just where Georgia has been, and that is where the Dawgs are this season. Either Georgia will string together three wins in a row at the SECs or there will be no ticket to the Big Dance.
There's no question that Mark Fox did a very good job of getting Georgia where it needed to be during conference play in 2014. People can say the SEC is a bad basketball conference – and I am one of those people – but you can only play the schedule you get. Even though was inequitable for Georgia to face Kentucky, Florida and Tennessee on the road – you have to make the most of the conference schedule you have. And for the most part Georgia did that. 12-6 isn't bad any year in the SEC.
But 12-6 in the SEC alone isn't going to get it because no one respects SEC basketball. Why? Probably because in the last three years SEC teams not coached by John Calipari or Billy Donovan have won exactly two (2) NCAA tournament games.
Two… that's bad, and the entire country knows it.
Georgia's problem is compounded by six losses before the New Year. Of the four SEC teams being looked at by the NCAA Committee – Florida, Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee – none of them had a disastrous 6-6 start to the season. Georgia did that to itself, and that's why the Dawgs are not on the bubble right now. The start to the season unquestionably put Georgia in the position it is in today.
It was as if the Dawgs dug a giant hole for themselves in December and November and did a hell of a job getting out of it in January and February, but by the time March rolled around it was too late. Fox's Dawgs did the same thing to themselves the winter before – a poor start to the year only to play better in the SEC than expected.
You can't dig holes for yourself in basketball when the football team is still playing. November matters in basketball – December does, too. You can't wipe away bad losses in the non-conference part of you season; every single game in a season matters. That lesson should have been learned a year ago, but it was not. So while the Dawgs' record has changed the situation has not. The question, too, is unchanged:
Again, the great end to the 2013-14 regular season aside, is it OK with Georgia fans that their basketball program has had to run the table at the SEC Tournament nine out of the last ten years just to get into the NCAA Tournament? Is being that far from an NCAA bid acceptable for an institution as large and robust as the University of Georgia? How can one of the spotlight sports in athletic department as excellent as Georgia's struggle so at this for so long? I'm not talking about winning the national championship in basketball – just playing in the 68-team tournament that determines the champion.
Why is this so consistently difficult for Georgia? (Everyone asks me that question… every single year. It baffles everyone I know in basketball).
Fox is getting a lot of pats on the back these days – and to be clear he certainly deserves praise for turning things around after horrid start to the year. Some commentators complement him for being a good coach – the AJC's Mark Bradley and ESPN's Jeff Goodman (among others) made their case for Fox's coaching acumen this week. Goodman had him on the hot seat a few weeks ago, but said on Monday: "That guy can coach."
But commentators should not confuse saving a college basketball job with getting onto college basketball's biggest stage… those are two very different things. Often the best way to keep your job is to get to the NCAAs, but getting there alone doesn't guarantee a future at a school – just ask Tubby Smith and Ben Howland about that.
Let's be real here: Doesn't Fox also deserve criticism for not getting to the Big Dance consistently? I'm not talking about hate mail, or the mindless "I blame Mark Fox because it is raining outside" stupidity.
I mean a reality-based critique that points out that while he's shown flashes he's not done it enough make anyone feel secure that Georgia can consistently get to the NCAAs – because under him for the last half decade they have not. Also, does it matter if Fox can coach circles around the next guy if his team doesn't play in spotlight that is the NCAAs?
No, it doesn't matter.
In fact, the "XZY can really, really coach" is a false premise. It doesn't matter if a person can or cannot coach, or if people in the media think that person can or cannot coach. It only matters if coaches do or do not get to the NCAAs. That's the reality of sports. Either you win or you don't – it is irrelevant if you win with players that are highly recruited or "lightly" recruited. It is irrelevant if you get "good looks" out of timeouts (that one makes me pull my hair out more than any of the clichés we hear on the tube). No matter how many times commentators repeat it, coaches actually don't get extra wins at the end of the year for "doing more with less".
Here's how I (and the rest of the world that lives in reality) see it:
Scoreboard > Coaching
Scoreboard > Talent
Scoreboard > Everything in sports
Spare me that nonsensical false argument about coaching – either you win or you don't. TV commentators – do us all a favor and quit telling us how every single basketball coach in the country is a great coach or doing a "great job". If that were the case the end of the season wouldn't be littered with so many coaches getting fired – and most of y'all wouldn't have job commentating on TV because surely all of you great coaches would have never gotten fired to begin with.
But I digress, so back to the question at hand.
Fox and Georgia will need to win three games in a row this week in Atlanta to get to the NCAAs – is that where Georgia wants to be? Sure seems like it because that's been where Georgia has lived for a decade now.