On the eve of only the 11th NCAA Tournament appearance (and just the 9th that is actually acknowledged) in Georgia history, I thought I'd compose a rare historical-based basketball post, looking forward to what a portion of Bulldog basketball fans seemingly fear: the future.
After Georgia, yet again, lost another big lead and, in the process, lost another big game in its loss to Alabama in the SEC Tourney, the majority of our fan base was up in arms...and understandably so.
However, some seemed to take their criticism a little too far, questioning the coaching of Mark Fox and stressing that if one cannot win with this year's edition (a team that only goes seven deep, I'd like to emphasize), you likely won't win in the future, especially if Trey Thompkins and/or Travis Leslie decide to go pro early.
As one disgruntled fan posted at another blog: Honestly, Mark Fox might-as-well be fired on the court...This will be the most talented UGA team he will ever have...and he may not make the tourney.
I really hope that "fan" was exaggerating for surely he understands one of college basketball's most prominent tendencies: unlike football, just one or two exceptional incoming players can vastly improve or even completely turnaround a basketball program. One season, you might struggle to win 10 games; however, soon thereafter, you could find yourself in the Final Four. Case in point: LSU a couple times the last decade or so and - a little closer to home - Georgia upon the arrival of Hugh Durham in the late 1970s.
I grew up on Hugh Durham basketball at Georgia and have always held the coach in rather high regard. Consider that in the 27 seasons of the three combined coaching regimes prior to Durham, the Bulldogs won more than 14 games just once (in 27 seasons!) and had an overall winning percentage of only .363.
Upon his arrival to Athens in 1978, Durham inherited the worst basketball program in the SEC and one of the more dreadful in the nation. Nevertheless, Durham's Dogs earned the school's first postseason basketball appearance within three years and miraculously reached the Final Four in just season five.
One of the primary reasons why Coach Durham was able to completely turn around a dismal basketball program was because he immediately attracted a handful of the best-of-the-best recruits in the entire nation, namely McDonald's All-Americans.
Since their inception in 1977, McDonald's All-Americans have been considered, for the most part, the annual top 20-to-24 high school basketball seniors.
Want to know which college basketball programs had the most McDonald's All-Americans over a certain stretch of time? Just take a look at the most successful programs over the same period.
Most of these top-notch recruits are can't-miss quality players; there are very few that turn out to be complete "busts" while approximately 70 percent of them go on to play in the NBA.
From 1979-1982, Durham signed five of these first-rate talents: Terry Fair and Dominique Wilkins in 1979, James Banks and Vern Fleming a year later, and Donald Hartry in 1982. During that same four-year period - and this absolutely blows my mind - only four schools had as many or more McDonald's All-Americans than Georgia: powerhouses North Carolina, Kentucky, UCLA, and Notre Dame. (Remember, this was a Bulldog basketball program that had won only about one-third of its games for more than a quarter-century.)
Wilkins is still considered likely the greatest basketball player ever at Georgia. Fair, Banks, and Fleming were three of the five starters on the '83 Final Four team. And Hartry, as a true freshman, was one of the 1982-83 team's top reserves and would finish his Bulldog career with the second-most assists in school history.
In the 10 years from 1983-1992, Durham signed five more McDonald's All-Americans, although just two succeeded as Bulldogs. Melvin "Hollywood" Howard (1983) was regarded as a defensive specialist in a reserve role for two-and-a-half years before transferring and starting at Georgia State. Elmore Spencer (1987) averaged about 13 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 blocks as a redshirt freshman during the first half of the 1988-89 season before breaking his foot. He transferred to UNLV and would eventually be a first-round pick in the '92 NBA Draft.
Litterial Green (1989) became one the greatest Bulldog basketball players of all time and one of the few to play in the NBA. Shaun Golden followed Green a year later and never quite lived up to the hype, playing as a reserve his entire career. Durham's final McDonald's All-American, Athens' own Carlos Strong (1992), was a four-year starter, departed Georgia as the school's 10th all-time leading scorer and 7th in career rebounds, and played on the Bulldogs' second (and last) Sweet Sixteen team as a senior.
With the firing of Durham came Georgia's apparent inability to recruit the best-of-the-best talent. Until Coach Fox lured Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (photo) this year, the Bulldogs had not signed a McDonald's All-American in nearly two entire decades (although Damien Wilkins, a 1999 McDonald's All-American, transferred from NC State and ended his collegiate career at Georgia).
To go from landing 10 of the country's very best players in a 14-year span to none over the next 18 years is hard to comprehend. Even more difficult to understand is that after signing 4 of the 5 McDonald's All-Americans from the state of Georgia from 1979-1983 (while Georgia Tech signed none of the 5), and 6 of the 14 from the state from 1979-1992 (Tech 2 of 14), the Bulldogs did not sign a single one of the state's 16 from 1993-2010 (Tech 4 of 16).
Whether Georgia wins tomorrow against Washington in the opening round or loses, or keeps Thompkins and Leslie or loses them early to the NBA, to assume this year's team is the most talented Fox will have is near senseless (assuming the coach doesn't bolt for another school anytime soon).
The Bulldog Basketball Nation should be thrilled we finally got a coach who, like Durham, can evidently recruit top talent. I realize that the signing of merely one McDonald's All-American shouldn't completely sway the opinions of those that feel Fox is in for an up-hill battle beginning with next season.
However, history has shown that the signing of one top-notch recruit often leads to enticing even more, while the foundation of a reputable basketball program is built.
On March 30th, you might want to watch this year's McDonald's All-American Game and checkout soon-to-be Bulldog - Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. I have a feeling we're going to see a lot of him in 2011-12...