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Profile of a Possible Savior: Mark Fox

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Don’t fear, folks. The POAPS are still marching in.

Kentucky v Georgia Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Fun fact: Mark Gottfried’s average AdjD rank in his six years at NC State was 128.3; Sidney Lowe’s was 128.4. Just once in the last 11 years has the Pack had a defense that ranked in the top 50, and that was in Lowe’s second to last season. There is a desperate need for a culture change at NC State, and it needs to start on the defensive end.

Georgia coach Mark Fox’s teams have ranked 46th or better in Kenneth Pomeroy’s AdjD rankings for three straight seasons, including a high of 22nd in 2015. At Nevada, he had a team that ranked 12th and another in the top 40.

If NC State AD Debbie Yow isn’t willing to gamble on a young, up-and-coming coach and can’t afford Gregg Marshall, assuming he would want the job, Fox could be a sensible choice. There’s nothing sexy about his record at Georgia, but there is a very practical consideration. He has no buyout.

Important Questions, In Rough Order Of Importance:

1. Has he coached teams that have won a national title, made multiple deep NCAA tournament runs, and/or consistently been highly ranked?

Georgia hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 1996. Most fans and alumni that live and die on every autumn play on the gridiron are actually unaware that the school fields teams in other sports. He has gotten the Dawgs ranked once and in the tournament twice in his eight seasons.

At Nevada, Fox got the other Wolf Pack in the Dance in three of his five seasons but never advanced beyond the second round.

2. Has he built a program from the ground up?

Nevada had one good season under Trent Johnson, who parlayed a regional semifinal run into the Stanford gig. Fox took over for him and sustained the program for five seasons. He never won less than 21 games; Johnson only had one 20-win season. Still, it’s hard to say Fox built the Wolf Pack from the ground up since he took over after said 20-win season.

Dennis Felton was a raging dumpster fire even by UGA’s low hoops standards. Fox took the Dawgs from the bottom of the SEC, where it was one of the very worst power conference programs (198th in Felton’s last year), to rock solid mediocrity.

3. Has he substantially improved the program from when he took over?

He at least maintained success at Nevada. Entering this year he’d won 20 games three straight seasons at Georgia, which had NEVER been done there. Never. NEVER! I can’t express enough how much of an afterthought hoops is there. If he wins an NIT game this year, and that’s where the Dawgs are headed if they’re headed anywhere, it will be four 20-win seasons in a row. So, definitely in the case of the Dawgs, though it’s not a level of success that will probably get any of us particularly amp or hype.

4. Has he succeeded at more than one head coaching job?

Yes, if you consider sucking a lot less than normal but still not being very good a successful run at UGA.

5. Does he have significant high-major experience as either a head coach or an assistant?

He’s in his eighth season for the Dawgs. He also had stints as an assistant at Washington and Kansas State.

6. Is his team one of the best in its conference right now?

Nope, but Georgia has three top three SEC finishes in eight seasons under Fox, including once finishing second and getting the snub from the committee. I know the ACC is a billion times tougher than the SEC, but, for comparison’s sake, State last finished second in the regular season in 2004.

Fox’s club was just eighth this year in the standings and seventh in KenPom’s overall rankings. It was oh so close to being a different story; Georgia lost in overtime at Kentucky and Florida, both KenPom top 10 teams, by a deuce at South Carolina, and by one in the clock malfunction game at Texas A&M. If they take a couple of those on the road, they’d be dancing.

For what it’s worth, he won the regular season title at Nevada four times in five seasons and finished second the other year.

7. Do his teams actually play, what is this thing called, "defense"?

As noted in the intro, Fox’s teams have been very good defensively in each of the last three seasons and for most of his tenure at both Georgia and Nevada. Tony Bennett, he ain’t, but he’s most likely the best defensive coach from a major conference that would realistically be at play for NC State.

8. So how about offense?

The Dawgs are middle of the pack in terms of pace and do not shoot the three. I don’t think Fox is against the three, per se, it just doesn’t fit his personnel (The Dawgs’ 32.1% accuracy from deep ranks 301st).

The team runs a variation of Phil Jackson’s triangle offense which is supposed to be somewhat of a free flowing, read and react sort of thing, but Fox has been slow to take the training wheels off and let his players have freedom within the system until this year. It didn’t work, as Georgia measures horribly in extra scoring chances due to a high turnover rate.

His offenses were usually quite good at Nevada, especially in comparison to mid-major competition, but he simply hasn’t had the talent to be consistently good on that side of the ball in the SEC.

9. Any indication that he can recruit McDonald’s All-American-type players?

Three 2017 Burger Boys hail from the great state of Georgia; none of them are going to Athens unless they get lost. Fox did keep McDonald’s All-American and lottery pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope at home a few years back, and his current class includes a top 50 player in Rayshaun Hammonds along with Nic Claxton, who spurned the Pack for the Dawgs. Still, the roster is dotted with mostly three-star guys. Fox has never had a top 25 class at Georgia.

(Aside: dear lord it was depressing looking back at all the top 25 classes Mark Gottfried had and how goddam little he did with them.)

10. Does he have any connection to NC State, North Carolina, or the ACC?

Nope. Not really. But he has been hanging around the ACC footprint for nearly a decade.

11. Any other random red flags or positives?

Even with 13 years of head coaching experience, Fox is only 48, so he could be around for a nice long run. So age and experience are both positives.

As far as I can tell he’s squeaky clean. Wife. Two kids. Says his prayers. Eats his vitamins.

Summary:

Would he be better than Gottfried?

Yes. Especially with equal talent, but if most of the ACC can beat Gott with less talent, I’m sure Fox could too. He almost beat Kentucky twice this year with a bunch of three star guys. And I can’t see things being too beyond Fox’s capacity to deal with as to have them spiral out of control as they did with Gott (the transfers, the staff turnover, the divorce, etc). The next question asks about ceiling; with Fox at least you have a very solid floor.

OK, so what is his ceiling?

If he could bring top 25 classes to State virtually every year as Gottfried did and get them to play defense, he should have annual top 25 teams and make the occasional deep tournament run. I definitely don’t see him underachieving, but can he up his recruiting success at State? I’d think so, but there are no guarantees.

Would he take the job if offered?

I think he’s feeling the heat a bit this year at Georgia. This was supposed to be the year they took a step forward. He would probably like a fresh start and to go somewhere where basketball is more of a priority. Then again, perhaps it’s nice to get paid a couple million a year without the pressure to be nationally relevant.

And, again, the lack of a buyout would make it easy financially.

How would I feel if he were hired?

I’d much rather we gamble. I do like that the guy’s teams defend, and I like that he seems like a respectable human being, but I truly hope we swing for the fences rather than make a safe move. I think his teams at State would ultimately have higher KenPom rankings than his Georgia teams (and Gott’s teams), and they would make the tournament more often than not, but I don’t think he could be The One to bring the Pack back to the first division.

How would the fan base as a whole feel if he were hired?

I’m sure you’ve been reading this and, if you even got this far, thinking “Oh god no, not this guy!” Well, Fox is EXACTLY the guy most of us are pining for, or he was. Just a few seasons ago, he was the Keatts, the Wade, the Miller, the hot new thing. Not every mid-major hire pans out. In fact, most don’t. Is Fox a worse coach now than he was when he left Nevada? Of course not. He took a shitty job and has elevated it to an extent, but he ultimately hasn’t made basketball anything more than the afterthought it’s always been in Athens. He would have advantages in Raleigh he doesn’t have there, and he might turn out just fine. But he’d have a very hard time winning the press conference since he’s no longer the flavor of the month.

It’s not the hire we’d want. But, given the lack of buyout and the major conference experience, it seems like such an N.C. State thing to do. Dave Doeren may yet work out, but could Dr. Yow be feeling a little burned by her decision to go with an unproven mid-major guy in her last major coaching search? Fox seems very safe. And that’s not a terrible descriptor. But safe isn’t exciting.