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UGA wants to spoil Michael Porter Jr.’s return — and save Mark Fox’s job

The Bulldogs’ nine-year coach is on the hot seat, and a run to an SEC tournament title and automatic bid might be all that can save him.

NCAA Basketball: Georgia at Florida
Mark Fox (center) is on the hot seat.
Matt Stamey-USA TODAY Sports

A couple weeks ago, a canary in the coal mine started squawking.

On Feb. 26, Ashton Hagans, the No. 10 player and top point guard in the 2019 class, decommitted from Georgia, a tremor that indicated a crack in coach Mark Fox’s sturdy standing in Athens. In the past, athletic director Greg McGarity hushed whispers of Fox’s imminent demise, strongly voicing support for his head coach.

Standing pat made sense, too.

Outside of Dominique Wilkins, Tubby Smith and a not-quite-rehabilitated Jim Harrick, Georgia’s been a basketball backwater content with its football-first mentality. Fox’s nine years on the job were overlapped a historic lull conference-wide, making middle-of-the-pack finishes and a pair of NCAA tournament trips sufficient to stay employed. He’s also paid an affordable $2.135 million and runs a shop that doesn't run afoul of the NCAA.

Over the past three offseasons, he’s also outlasted perennial hot seat chatter.

In late December, Fox also locked up a pair of commitments from Hagans and Elias King, the No. 55 recruit in 2019 and the state’s third-best product — major coups considering UGA’s middling success keeping elite in-state prospects home. Those pledges not only offered hope but an insurance policy for Fox when the time to negotiate an extension.

Yet the Bulldogs never seriously challenged in the SEC race, and the league has rapidly improved as UGA’s remained stuck in neutral over the past four seasons. When Hagans bailed, it raised an ominous and straightforward question: Is Fox still the man for the job?

And then Tuesday came the first reports hinting change is peeking over the horizon, which included the question as to whether Fox faces a mandate to make a deep run during the SEC tournament in St. Louis.

“No, I have not been told that we have to win a certain number of games or advance to the tournament,” Fox said. “I’ve had no communication like that. I really would like this tournament, really like I’ve tried to have for the last nine years be about our team and these kids, and find them some success and not have it be about the coach. My hope is that we’ll be able to focus on that because it’s their only time to play. For some of them, it’s their last tournament as seniors. We’re going to do the best we can to try to keep them here in the tournament as long as we can and try to get as many wins for Georgia as we can. Hopefully, that will be the focus. But, no, I have not had any communication to your question.”

Oh, and it’s never a good sign when scribes are compiling lists of replacements while you're still on the job.

Last month, Ole Miss relied on the same calculus administrators at Georgia appear to be relying on now. Across the SEC, athletic departments are funneling TV revenue into top-flight coaching hires and facility improvements. Even if fanbases aren’t a slavishly devoted to the hardwood, an arms race is ramping up.

With an athletic budget of $127.5 million, McGarity obviously has cash on hand to put together an enticing payday for a quality replacement and a salary pool for competent staff. Recent renovations to Stegeman Coliseum and a nearby recruiting hotbed in Atlanta are also a part of any package he puts together. Will it work? You certainly can’t blame McGarity for wondering whether it’s time to try something new.

On Wednesday night, though, UGA bolted from the blocks against Vanderbilt and coasted to a 16-point victory. Yante Maten logged 25 points on 9 of 12 shooting as the Bulldogs abused a thin ’Dores frontcourt. Whether the effort represents a mad scramble to save Fox’s job remains unclear, but Mizzou is hoping to snuff out whatever fragile hope UGA is trying to nurture this week.

The Scout

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Georgia vs Vanderbilt
Yante Maten
Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports

Tempo | The Bulldogs’ pace is glacial, ranking 329th nationally, and that’s probably just fine for Mizzou. While Porter’s return is a clear upgrade in personnel, he’s only taking the minutes allotted to Cullen VanLeer, who is out for the remainder of the season with a torn ACL. Jordan Barnett and Kassius Robertson will once again log heavy usage, and it’s fair to wonder how sustainable that is over four days. There’s a silver lining to playing a team that wants to walk the ball up and only spends 10 percent of its possessions in transition.

Tale of the Tape | With Porter’s reintroduction to the wild, there’s genuine intrigue as to how Mizzou’s offense changes. At last, MU has a capable ballhandler and a wing capable of creating outside a set piece. Plugging him into a roster that defends consistently and wins the rebound battle bodes poorly for UGA, which doesn’t apply heavy on-ball pressure and relies on positional defense more than lockdown individual defenders.

On the other hand, Yante Maten, Derek Ogbeide and Rayshaun Hammonds are long and active on the backboards. If Mizzou’s misfiring from the perimeter and Porter’s game still has a layer of rust, Fox’s crew can render Mizzou’s offense pretty average by choking off second possessions. And Cuonzo Martin’s disposition is to turn a game into half-court grappling match filled with jostling bodies in the posts and plodding.

If shots aren’t falling, Maten gets rolling and the Tigers bigs get into foul trouble, there’s a world in which Georgia survives to fight another day.

The Zones | Yante Maten’s presence is a boon, because without him the Bulldogs aren’t efficient, even at close range. In fact, Maten only shoots 45.7 percent on 2-point attempts. Meanwhile, Georgia’s wings — Hammonds, William Jackson II, Juwan Parker — shoot just 37.9 percent inside the arc. Since early February, Mizzou’s deployed a version of man-to-man reminiscent of a pack line: keep help near the midline, split the difference up the line and make closeouts controlled. It’s made opponents wade through a sea of limbs, and that figures to be the same tonight against Georgia, and that’s before recalling how Jontay Porter turned off the spigot that it is Maten’s low-post production during the first meeting in January.

X-Factor // MPJ. Duh. | On Wednesday, Martin told reporters that Porter wouldn’t see more than 30 minutes of action, but also said his long-awaited addition wouldn’t be playing unless he could go full bore. What is he capable of giving Missouri in 20 minutes of action? That remains to be seen. October seems like an eon ago, but if you rummage around your memory bank you may recall there were spans against Kansas where Mizzou’s offense stalled out as Porter operated in isolation. Now, there are actions within MU’s offense — look up the AI series in this video — that fit Porter’s skillset and don’t sacrifice movement and spacing. How those play out at full speed and what Porter’s level of execution looks like will be worth tracking.

NCAA Basketball: Louisiana State at Georgia
Juwan Parker
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Matchups | Simplistic as it sounds, stalling Maten cripples this offense. Ogbeide is a thumper on the low block but limited in his countermeasures if you body him up. The Bulldogs’ backcourt has one jump shooter, a point guard who struggles in pick-and-rolls and a freshman swingman whose strong suit is playing in the open floor — a rare occurrence for this UGA squad. Defensively, though, Maten and Ogbeide throw their mass around and can disrupt Mizzou’s desire to start games and halves by playing through the post. And they do a phenomenal job running jump shooters off the line. What you need to know about Fox is that among his peers, he’s regarded as one of the best schematic minds in the SEC. He’ll have a detailed scout ready to go.

  • PG: William Jackson II vs. Kassius Robertson | Almost half his possessions are pick and rolls, and half of those are run at the top of the key. You can also safely bet he’s going to use the pick to dribble into a poor pull-up jumper (18.9 field-goal percentage) or try to finish at the rim. Mizzou shouldn’t collapse hard to stop penetration, because Jackson’s looking pitch the ball out (1.024 PPP), especially to capable roll men in Ogbeide and Maten. This matchup is a coup, too, for Robertson. Jackson is a poor spot-up defender, allowing a 65.3 effective-field-goal percentage and a 42.7- percent clip from behind the arc. And the numbers don’t any better on jumpers taken out of pick-and-rolls.
  • CG: Juwan Parker vs. Jordan Geist | Parker is a jump shooter and the only reliable one (53.5 EFG%) on UGA’s roster. Sometimes he’ll attack out of wing catches, but he’s angling for a pull-up jumper. He struggles to guard pick-and-rolls, which might make him an ideal target for handoffs or AI cuts to get a switch on to Porter.
  • WING: Rayshaun Hammonds vs. Jordan Barnett | Hammonds is low-usage and his sources of offensive can ebb and flow. When Georgia does decide to run, he’s effective at leading the break. And if he tracks down a rebound, he can subsist on putbacks. Yet UGA’s tempo and the presence of to alpha big men make those chances fleeting. What he can do is use his length to defend spots one through four. And he’s competent enough on the glass that Fox can keep him on the floor. If Porter’s checked in, he’s the man likely to draw the assignment.
  • POST: Derek Ogbeide vs. Kevin Puryear | Puryear’s perfunctorily listed here, but it might be shrewd to start Jontay Porter. Ogbeide’s game isn’t about nimble footwork, ball fakes and a soft touch. He will lower a shoulder and go through you. On side pick-and-rolls, he’s shown soft hands and the ability to finish plays consistently, but he’s going to live on mismatches inside and crashing the glass. Puryear just doesn’t have the heft or strength to consistently front Ogbeide or the size to wall off a path to the rim.
  • POST: Yante Maten vs. Jeremiah Tilmon | It’s pretty simple: Maten’s going to work on the block. Right. Left. Doesn’t matter. Setting up shop on the left block, he’ll turn to his right shoulder and is not only efficient (60.9 FG%) but more diverse with his finishes. Working on the right block, he’s prone to deploy his drop stop. His activity level on the offensive glass lets him pick up a few easy scoring chances each night, and he can even pick-and-pop (52.3 EFG%) when called upon.
NCAA Basketball: Georgia at Tennessee
Rayshaun Hammonds
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

The Bottom Line

The clamoring around MPJ’s return will suck up all the oxygen, but Missouri’s task is simple: win and leave no doubt about an at-large berth. Even if it means the pace and flow of the game call for limiting Porter’s role. Dispatching the Bulldogs brings a third meeting with Kentucky, another Quadrant 1 opponent and a chance to start improving its seed line.