March 16, 2011

Fox's way the right way

To get an idea of how far Georgia's basketball team has come in the two years since Mark Fox's took over the program all you've got to do is consider the media contingent attending Wednesday's press session.

Under normal circumstances only six, perhaps seven reporters would be on hand to chronicle the week's activities for the Bulldogs.

Not this time. In what was the team's final on-campus press session before boarding its bus for the three-hour drive to Charlotte and the second round of the NCAA Tournament, a throng of approximately 20-25 media types were there, including every Atlanta TV station and others who were attending a pre-game press conference for the first time all year.

But who can blame them?

In just two years, Fox has taken a Bulldog basketball program and has transferred it from one of the league's laughing stocks, into one that has won 20-plus regular season games for the first time in 13 years and Friday night will take on the Pac-10 Tournament champion Washington in the NCAA tourney.

Fox admits it's been quite the turnaround, both on and off the court.

"The first step was really to adjust their behavior in every facet of life and I think that when I first came, the thing I did best was not to listen to anybody because I think we knew what we needed to do and how they needed to function, in the classroom, off the floor and on the court," Fox said. "I think everyone has their two cents to offer, but if you go to everybody's house they leave the pennies on the dresser so we just felt like we set the standard and this was going to be how you have to function and fortunately for me they bought in.

"It didn't mean that we didn't have some struggles. They still remember the tour of the football stadium, but they bought into how we wanted them to function and I think that's one of the big reasons they've earned themselves a spot in the tournament."

It's been Fox's way or the highway.

Prior to his arrival, off-the-court issues proved to be a major problem for former coach Dennis Felton, resulting in a number of the Bulldogs' top players being forced from the team or deciding to leave on their own accord.

Combine that with the fact Georgia's on-court success had been minimal at best - the team's 2008 SEC Tournament Championship notwithstanding - one of Fox's greatest challenges included changing the culture from that of a losing program into one of success.

"You can't be successful consistently on the basketball court if you're not successful off it. I think there's a real correlation between guys who function on the court and are good students that also play well," Fox said. "If you have issues off the floor all that does is take your time and focus energy away from playing the right way on the floor so we've talked a great deal about how to be issue free, both on and off the court."

Senior Jeremy Price admitted there was a lot of doubt when Fox laid down the law upon his arrival in Athens.

"There was definitely some changes that we all had to adjust to," said Price. "There were some things we weren't used to."

Not all players bought into what Fox had in mind. Those players who didn't want to buy in, were not asked to stay.

Now, in just two years, the Bulldog basketball program is one of just five from the SEC making up the NCAA Tournament field.

"This (making the NCAAs) is important because since I came to Georgia we talked about a vision of where we wanted this program to go, and now instead of selling a vision we can sell the accomplishment," Fox said. "It's a real step forward for us, now we need to try and build on it."

But getting past the Pac-10 Tourney champion Huskies (23-10) won't be easy.

The Huskies may be the most versatile team the Bulldogs (21-10) have played all year, with the ability to go big with 6-10 forward Matthew Bryan-Amaning and 7-foot center Aziz N'Diaye but are also capable of running the floor and shooting lights out with guard Isaiah Thomas. Thomas leads Washington in scoring with 16.8 points per game and is considered one of the more dynamic players at his position in the entire country.

"Washington is extremely talented, a great offensive team," Fox said. "They're averaging that with terrific shooting, a great low-block scorer and a terrific point guard, so they've very complete, very explosive and that's a great strength to have. But they combine that with very good defense."

But the Huskies' on-court talent is just part of Fox's concern.

The coach said Wednesday he's also worried how his players will respond to all the pomp and circumstance that is the NCAA.

Price and Chris Barnes are the only Bulldogs who remain that were part of the Georgia squad in 2008 which lost in the first round against Xavier, adding his team did not always handle playing with high expectations all that well.

"I do think that at times this year that guys, because they had not been in this situation before, not necessarily the pressure, but the expectations of succeeding that maybe we didn't manage those too well," Fox said. "But now that they're in the tournament, they can just relax and play but we're going to have to play well because we're playing a great team."

But based on the lesson's the team has learned under Fox in the two years, Gerald Robinson Jr. said he feels the Bulldogs won't get caught up in their surroundings, and will instead remember the lessons Fox and his assistants have taught them thus far.

"We understand that really nobody on the team has any experience, but all the coaches have been to the tournament a number of times," he said. "As long as we just focus on what they teach us, we'll be fine."

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