There are two ways to look at Georgia’s 70-64 overtime win at No. 21 Missouri Wednesday, and in this order: with your heart, and with your head.
As the overtime seconds wound down, after Georgia corralled the final rebound and sank the perfunctory free throws, an unusual thing happened on the Bulldogs’ bench. Their head coach, Mark Fox, wept.
It was hard to identify at first. Fox had his head in his hands, but he has had plenty of reason to do that this season. His 6-6 group has underperformed and regressed since last season, and they weren’t very good then, either. But Fox’s glasses were off, and his hands were gripping his head, and his assistants were glancing, giving him that unique imaginary space you give a person when you have to sit two feet from them but you know they really just need a minute alone.
Then it became obvious: Fox was crying. He was crying because his team had just knocked off a ranked team on the road days after Fox flew alone to Garden City, Kan., to attend his father’s funeral.
Raymond Lewis Fox, 78, was a coach and educator who “believed in coaching and in education in life, that there’s a right way to do things,” Fox said. Fox’s father lost his battle with lung cancer last Friday night, while Fox was coaching his team in a 73-55 loss at George Washington -- a decision, Fox told the Athens Banner-Herald, that his father would have demanded.
“My Dad spent his life working with young people and he didn’t even want his services to be during the season,” Fox told the Banner-Herald. “He wanted me to coach my team." Leaving the team "would be one of the first times I didn’t listen."
On Monday, Fox took to Twitter to thank fans for their support, and wrote his father would have wanted “my mom looked after, our fans to support our team, our coach to help our young people, and our team to play some damn defense.”
Message received. On Wednesday, Georgia played its best defense of the season. Missouri averages nearly 48.8 percent shooting on the season; the Bulldogs held them to 39.6. The Tigers have averaged 1.12 points per possession against opposing defenses this season; the Bulldogs hassled them into just .93. Missouri guard Jordan Clarkson is one of the 10 or so most efficient scorers in the country this season; Georgia swarmed him into a 12-point, 14-shot performance.
And sure, there were plenty of uncharacteristic Missouri misses along the way. But Georgia genuinely deserves credit. Down to the final possessions -- when they covered all angles and smartly avoided contact and forced Earnest Ross into a desperate heave of a 3 -- they were smarter and more cohesive than they’ve ever been this season. Maybe longer.
All of which brings us to the second half of this reaction, the province of the head. Because once you get past the image of Fox on the sideline, and start thinking in cold, analytical terms, what you end up with, sorry to say, is an absolutely horrible loss for Missouri’s NCAA tournament résumé.
On Jan. 8, it is still too early to start worrying about RPI figures, but we’ll make an exception for an extreme circumstance. As of Wednesday, Missouri’s RPI is 28. Georgia’s is 242. (The numbers vary slightly depending on which site you use; we’ll use the ESPN.com numbers, because duh.) At first glance, Missouri’s number -- not to mention their solid nonconference performance -- is strong enough to withstand a random bad loss at home. And if the tournament were seeded today, it would be. But there’s a lot of season left and, frankly, losses don’t come much worse than what Missouri suffered Wednesday night. Losing to a team with a sub-200 RPI on the road isn’t great. Doing so at home can be a disaster.
Odds are, Missouri will be fine. The Tigers are much better than they played Wednesday night. They’re already in good bubble condition, in so far as a bubble even yet exists. The hope is that the Tigers won’t need them -- that this night won’t be the piece of their résumé on which their status one day pivots.
Emotionally, Fox will no doubt always remember Wednesday night. Any viewer with a heart will remember, too. Analytically, Missouri just wants to forget the whole thing ever happened.
(Update: A previous version of this post claimed Missouri was in the Big 12. They are in the SEC.)