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Foxs vision looks 20/20
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Forsyth County News
What a difference a year makes!

A year ago almost to the day, the woebegone Georgia men’s basketball team followed beleaguered coach Dennis Felton to his Waterloo.

The Dogs stood 0-4 in the SEC. They had opened conference play with a spirited 86-77 home loss to Tennessee. There followed a soporific 50-40 loss at Vanderbilt, and an abysmal 68-45 home loss to a mediocre Kentucky team. Then, Georgia stayed within a respectable distance of Mississippi State, 67-61, before a sparse and disinterested home crowd.

What followed on January 28, 2009, known as Black Wednesday in the Felton household, was an exhibition of basketball ineptitude incredible even by Georgia’s exacting standards. The Dogs lost at Florida, 83-57. The next day Felton lost his job.

You may dredge up your own memories of the desultory play that characterized the rest of Georgia’s lost season. Suffice it to say that the program reached a nadir. Again.

Time once more for a new coach to chart a new course to drag Georgia basketball out of the wilderness and lead it into the Promised Land.

Would it be like John Guthrie, steadfastly keeping Georgia at the bottom of the SEC? Like Hugh Durham leading the way to Georgia’s only Final Four, then sitting back and coasting? Tubby Smith, kindling excitement, only to be whisked away and anointed Kentucky coach?

Ron Jirsa? Who? Jim Harrick? Let it go. Or Dennis Felton, never able to connect with his players?

Some history. That’s why general apathy greeted the naming of Mark Fox as Georgia’s new coach. Georgia’s basketball irrelevance remained secure.

Yet, somehow, Fox seemed different. No nonsense, but with a definite plan, a vision. He splashed billboards around Athens. He met personally with season ticket holders, not that there were very many. He said all the right things.

And then he got the teams’ attention. When reports of missed classes and tutorials reached his ears, the team found itself inside Sanford Stadium, running every single step in the place. Takes about three hours.

In pretty short order, there was improvement on the court, too. The team that seemed so lost a year ago suddenly had a clue, and it played hard. Fox changed defenses often, not only for new looks, but to control the game’s tempo as well. And when running a set play out of a time out, Fox always designed something that earned a good shot. That’s coaching on a level rarely witnessed on the Georgia bench.

The team that lost to Wofford beat Illinois and Georgia Tech. The team was making progress, but how would it handle the grind of the SEC schedule? How would it respond to losing its first three SEC games, excruciating losses that all could have been wins?

“Losses can be seen two ways,” Albert Jackson told David Ching of the Athens Banner-Herald on Saturday. Jackson, a senior, is Georgia’s only four-year scholarship player. “Losses can be seen as ‘Dang, we’re not very good’ or you can learn from those losses. Coach did a great job once again of teaching us from the losses, and keeping our confidence at a good level, and showing us our mistakes and showing us what we could do better, and showing us how to do it. He did a great job of helping us through that.”

Did he ever. Saturday’s 78-63 win over No. 8-ranked Tennessee, the same Tennessee that knocked off No. 1-ranked Kansas three weeks ago, has to go down as one of the great upsets of all time.

Or does it? “It’s only an upset because we came in ranked higher,” Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl told Ching. “We didn’t get beat because we came in overconfident. We got beat because we got beat. They’re a good team and they showed it tonight.

“I was saying before the game that there were five [SEC] teams that could make the [NCAA] Tournament, but I think there may be six. I told my team that Georgia will definitely not finish last in the SEC.”

Not if they keep playing like they did on Saturday. The Vols last led 4-2, at which point Georgia went on a 12-point run. The Dogs never looked back, pushing the lead to 15 at the half, and keeping it near 20 for most of the second half.

And they did it in front of a raucous, sold-out Stegeman Coliseum crowd. You read that right. The first home sell-out in three years.

“I want the Georgia fans to know that this is how exciting basketball can be,” athletic director Damon Evans told Roger Clarkson of the Athens Banner-Herald. “The fans made the atmosphere. Our kids are going to play hard. Mark Fox is going to coach hard. And we’re going to do some great things here.”

That’s nothing Fox hadn’t envisioned in his grand scheme of things. Jackson again: “Coach told us if you play hard, win, lose, or draw, if you play hard, you’ll fill the stands. If you do things the right way, you’ll fill the stands. It came to fruition tonight. We played hard, we played tough, and our fans came out.

“It’s amazing to see them come out, because it hasn’t happened too many times since I’ve been here.”

And how did the architect of this miraculous turn-around handle the victory? He shook hands and spoke with coach Pearl, shook hands with the Tennessee players, pointed to someone in the stands, gave someone a soft fist bump, and never broke stride as he strolled into the winning locker room.

Very matter-of-fact. Nothing out of the ordinary. After all, this is what he’s envisioned all along.

Easy for him. He wasn’t here a year ago.