Steve Megargee Rivals.com College Basketball Staff Writer
When Mark Fox arrived from Nevada in the spring of 2009, Georgia fans reacted to the move with a collective shrug.
They weren't alone.
"I didn't know anything about him," junior forward Trey Thompkins admitted.
Thompkins, who had just finished his freshman season, pondered transferring when he first learned about the coaching change. He and his teammates educated themselves by going on YouTube and finding a video of their new coach berating an official during his Nevada tenure.
Fox had won at least 21 games in each of his five seasons at Nevada, but his success in the WAC hadn't earned him much attention in the Southeast. He seemed like an unlikely candidate to turn around a Georgia program that had produced just one winning record in the five seasons before his arrival.
Yet he's on the verge of doing just that.
Georgia outperformed most expectations by going 14-17 last season and now boasts two projected first-round picks in swingman Travis Leslie and Thompkins, a forward who is the preseason SEC player of the year.
Eighteen months ago, few SEC fans even recognized Fox's name. Now his team's the talk of the conference.
"The one team that I think clearly may be better than everyone -- and I think all the teams are good -- is Georgia,'' Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "You've got two players who are [preseason] first-team All-SEC and probably have in my opinion the best player in the SEC in Trey Thompkins. Mark's a terrific coach. He's done a great job there."
Donovan's prediction might be a tad optimistic. Leslie and Thompkins form one of the nation's most talented duos, but this is still a team that failed to win a single true road game last season. Thompkins has a high ankle sprain that likely will keep him out of Friday's season opener with Mississippi Valley State and could cause him to miss significantly more time.
But that people are talking about Georgia at all represents a refreshing change for a program that had grown stale.
"If you have expectations, that means you're doing your job right," Fox said. "We like the fact that people believe in our team. That being said, a year ago, I remember telling our team often not to believe in what people said on the outside because no one thought we were going to be any good.
Room to grow
Georgia must buck recent history in its bid to reach the NCAA tournament. Although Georgia earned an NCAA bid in 2008 with its Cinderella run through the SEC tournament, the Bulldogs have produced a winning record just once in the past six seasons.
"This year, although many people think we're going to have a better team, I'm saying the same thing: 'Don't believe what anybody says on the outside.' We still have a lot of games to play, a lot of work to do."
That work started a year ago, when Fox took a drastic step to spark a change in his team's attitude. When Fox noticed that players were missing appointments or arriving late for class, he assembled his team at Sanford Stadium and made his players run up and down every step of the 92,746-seat facility.
"We definitely don't want to do that again," Leslie said. "It was one of the worst experiences ever. We've just been doing our best [ever since] in the classroom and on the court."
The move paid off, even if it wasn't necessarily reflected in Georgia's record.
The Bulldogs recorded home wins over NCAA tournament teams Georgia Tech, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Florida. Although they went 0-11 in true road games, four of their last seven road losses were decided by three or fewer points.
Fox believes depth concerns and defensive deficiencies caused the Bulldogs to lose those close road games. Georgia ranked eighth in the SEC in field-goal percentage defense (.431) and scoring defense (69.4) last season, and Fox had to utilize a zone defense more often than he would have liked because of his short bench. His three top guards - Leslie, Ricky McPhee and Dustin Ware - each averaged at least 29.4 minutes per game. Georgia expects to have more depth this season.
"Last year we had to sit in a zone with our limited numbers," Fox said. "This year we won't have to do that. We should be a better defensive basketball team, and hopefully that will enable us to win more away from home."
Although McPhee has graduated, the Bulldogs return their other four starters. They also signed 6-foot-7 forward Marcus Thornton, Georgia's "Mr. Basketball" last season. In addition, they welcome speedy 6-1 point guard Gerald Robinson, a Tennessee State transfer and former second-team All-Ohio Valley Conference player.
"There were a couple of games [last season] when we played Kentucky when I had a couple of chances to catch John Wall, and it wasn't happening," Thompkins said. "To me, it's definitely about the same, trying to catch Gerald."
The additions of Thornton and Robinson ought to help. The return of Thompkins and Leslie should provide an even bigger boost.
Thompkins, a 6-10 junior, is the SEC's top returning scorer (17.7) and rebounder (8.3). He opted against entering the NBA draft after ranking second in the SEC in scoring, fourth in rebounding, seventh in field-goal percentage (.483) and eighth in free-throw percentage (.762) last season.
"I thought about it a lot," Thompkins said. "That process was pretty nerve-wracking, but I understood that our team had a lot to offer, that we could have a great team.
"I didn't want to leave Georgia without being known as a winner. I wanted to help start something that's going to be great."
Thompkins' injury could put more pressure on Leslie, at least in the early going. Leslie, a 6-4 junior guard, ranked 13th in the SEC in scoring (14.8) and rebounding (6.8) last season. He pulled down 17 rebounds - the highest total by a Georgia player in nine years - in a loss to Auburn and closed the season with a 34-point performance against Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament.
The Web site draftexpress.com forecasts Thompkins as the No. 18 overall pick and Leslie as the No. 20 selection in the 2011 NBA draft. The Web site nbadraft.net has Thompkins going eighth and Leslie 18th.
"I know I'm going to have to step up my game," Leslie said. "It's not all about me. The team has to pick up its game also. We're waiting for [Thompkins] to get back healthy. We're going to go out and play our game like he's playing there with us. We're not going to let his injury get to us."
Thompkins' injury is just the first of many obstacles Georgia must overcome in its path to the NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs have to play better on the road. They have to play better defense. And they have to shoulder the burden of higher expectations.
"I highly doubt we will sneak up on anybody anymore," Thompkins said. "We know that everybody's gunning for us now. We have a target on our back because we have a team capable of big things."
Georgia also must survive the SEC's imbalance. The Bulldogs probably would be favored to win the SEC West, but they could struggle to finish higher than fourth in the SEC East. The SEC's four NCAA tournament teams last season all came from the East: Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Florida.
"You've got to take process in small steps," Fox said. "Just learning how to win obviously was a step for this team. How to win a big game was a step for this team. How to win on the road is another step.
"We know this is a long run. We're just trying to take steps forward and not take too many back."
He doesn't need to offer his players any reminders. Ever since that trip to Sanford Stadium, they've understood all too well how Fox values every step.