Fox laments Dawgs' brutal schedule

ATHENS, Ga. -- Mark Fox is not particularly happy about it, but Georgia's coach admits that his program was ill-prepared to absorb the blow from losing its two best players, Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie, to the NBA.

The Bulldogs' pre-conference schedule would have been demanding even if the two stars had remained, but it has overwhelmed a rebuilding club that has lost four in a row and five of the last six.

"I've got to be honest about where our program is," Fox said on his Monday night call-in show. "We weren't quite ready to deal with two guys leaving early. We just weren't quite deep enough to withstand that, and that's cost us a little bit. We'll get through it and we'll get older and stronger and better, and we'll get through it. But we just weren't quite in the position, with the schedule that we've got early, to really deal with it."

According to ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi's InsideRPI Daily, Georgia (5-6) has played the nation's 16th most-difficult schedule -- ranking behind only Vanderbilt (third overall) in the SEC.

That slate includes games away from Athens against No. 8 Xavier, California, Notre Dame, Colorado and, this weekend, at USC. Conversely, No. 17 Mississippi State, whose 10-1 record is the best in the SEC, has played away from Starkville in just two neutral-site games.

For the Georgia Bulldogs, that has been a recipe for disaster as they have tried to discover an offensive identity and have been prone to long scoring lulls.

"We've been playing good teams, and they've been making some plays, but at the end of the day we take ownership for our mistakes and we just have to play better," Georgia guard Dustin Ware said.

Despite the Bulldogs' offensive woes -- Georgia's scoring average of 59.4 points per game ranks 305th among 338 teams, and the Bulldogs are 319th in field goal percentage at 37.8 -- Fox is more disturbed by his team's defensive effort.

Georgia actually held halftime leads in each of its last three games, against Colorado, Cincinnati and Georgia Tech, only to lose each time. Fox said the Bulldogs' second-half defense -- when they were defending in front of the opponent's bench instead of their own -- was the culprit each time.

"That's the greatest issue right now in the last four games is our defensive field goal percentage has risen to a point in those games where teams are hitting almost 46 percent, and you cannot win that way," Fox said. "When your defense goes south, that puts more pressure on your offense -- and our offense doesn't need any pressure, obviously."

Fox recognizes that the long-term solution to Georgia's problem is to recruit better talent, beginning with some of the top-tier, in-state talent that frequently chooses other programs. And he believes reaching the NCAA tournament last year was helpful in that regard.

But that won't help matters this season -- the Bulldogs must make the best of what they have without Thompkins and Leslie -- and Fox knows his key to longevity is to build a winning tradition at Georgia that will attract players who can help the Bulldogs consistently win.

"That's the advantage that football has right now that we don't," Fox said. "That's such a great and strong and long-lasting tradition, and as kids grow up in the state, they want to be Bulldogs, and that's how it should be.

"We need to build our basketball program where kids, when they're in sixth or seventh or eighth grade, see our team and have the same feelings when they become sophomores and juniors in high school -- that this is a place where they want to go. That's going to take time to build that following, but that's how ultimately we can keep the best guys home."

David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at davidchingespn@gmail.com.