There have been highs, there have been lows.
There were Sweet Sixteens and six-win seasons.
There have been first-round draft picks and postseason tournament bans.
There has been Dominique Wilkins gliding through the air and Tony Cole showing off an illegally acquired TV on ESPN.
Welcome to the world of Georgia men’s basketball.
In its 117 seasons of play, Georgia is 1459-1367, good enough for a .516 win percentage all-time. That’s middle of the road by percentage, but it’s second-to-last in the Southeastern Conference (Ole Miss boasts a .499).
Speaking of Ole Miss, the Rebels are the only school in the SEC that the Bulldogs have beaten more times than they’ve lost. Every other SEC school has owned the Dawgs in their respective series.
One thing’s for sure: consistency from the University of Georgia basketball program has been hard to come by.
But there have been moments, like when Dennis Felton and his “Dream Dawgs” traveled back to Athens with the SEC Championship trophy in 2008, racking up victories against Ole Miss, Kentucky, Mississippi State and Arkansas (the middle two on the same day) to secure a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
The SEC Tournament, first held in the Georgia Dome, was moved to Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion after severe weather and a tornado struck the Dome, causing damage. It didn’t hurt Georgia’s chances, though. Chip Towers, a Georgia Athletics reporter for The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, wouldn’t have picked them to make that run.
“You could not ever have had a more unlikely SEC Tournament Champion and NCAA Tournament participant than you had in Georgia that year – obviously helped by the tornado.”
Tony Waller, the Assistant Dean for Career Development at UGA’s School of Law, is a lifetime Bulldog and the co-host of the Waiting Since Last Saturday podcast. He spent 1986-1993 in Athens as a student, first for his bachelor’s in agriculture science before earning his law degree. Now an involved member of the Greater Athens community, he was a witness of one of the greatest moments on the court at Stegeman Coliseum.
“I was there when Alec Kessler and Georgia shut down (Shaquille O’Neal) and held him to six points and he fouled out with, like, eight minutes left in the game,” Waller remembered.
LSU made the trip to Athens in February of 1990, featuring an O’Neal-led Tiger team with two other future NBA players. The Bulldogs ultimately came out on top, 66-65, after Neville Austin hit a free throw with only seconds left to put the Bulldogs ahead.
When the Tigers missed a game winner at the horn, Waller and the sellout crowd met the team on the hardwood.
“That’s the only time I ever went on the court,” he said. “We stormed the court – they were number four or five in the nation. Georgia had a good team, not a great team, but it was an incredible scene.”
Towers was covering the game and saw first-hand the pandemonium a free throw could cause.
“What I remember about that game specifically was – that was when you sat at the press row by the court – when Georgia clinched that win with Neville Austin of all people hitting a free throw… all of a sudden all of the Georgia students come flying over the scoring tables and press row there,” Towers said. “They knocked my computer down off the table onto the court as everybody just rushed the floor for the celebration. I’ve never seen anything before or since like that at Stegeman Coliseum – I mean that place was rocking.
“People forget LSU didn’t just have Shaquille O’Neal, they had Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and Stanley Roberts, they had a pair of seven footers.”
The year was notable for another reason – a conference title. The Bulldogs’ won their only regular-season SEC title in 1990, a feat that only Hugh Durham has accomplished during a Classic City coaching tenure.
The excitement was short-lived. Less than two weeks later, the Bulldogs fell in overtime to Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament. A week after that, Texas knocked Georgia out of the NCAA Tournament.
There have been some good times
Other times were good. G.G. Smith played for Georgia from 1995-99 when his father, Tubby, coached the Bulldogs. In G.G.’s freshman and sophomore years, the team reached the NCAA Tournament. He has fond memories of playing at Stegeman.
“It was the time of my life,” Smith said. “Playing basketball at Georgia was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”
He was a part of a cohort that saw four straight postseason appearances – two in the NCAA Tournament followed by two in the NIT. His freshman year, the Dawgs made a run in the tournament, besting Clemson and Purdue before falling to Syracuse in overtime in the Sweet 16.
The next year, Georgia earned a three seed in the NCAA Tournament.
And then they lost in the first round. UT-Chattanooga – a 14-seed – upset the Dawgs, 73-70.
His final two years under coach Ron Jirsa: a third-place NIT finish and a first-round NIT exit.
Jim Harrick’s tenure ended with scandal, when Georgia was placed on probation for four years for academic fraud issues (take the test that players did here). Coach Mark Fox brought two more NCAA bids, but a string of mediocre seasons ultimately got him the boot. And Tom Crean’s four years included a first-round overall pick and a 0.188 win percentage in SEC play.
So, what’s the problem here?
Of late, Georgia men’s basketball hasn’t looked great.
“I’m one of those people that starts bargaining when Georgia doesn’t look that good,” Waller said. “You know, ‘Maybe if we win a couple good games and make a run in the SEC Tournament, we can still make the tournament.’ The past couple years it’s been, ‘Well, if we pull out a couple games, make a run in the SEC Tournament, maybe we can make the NIT.’
“That’s sad to me. We should be in a better place than that.”
So what has to happen? What does UGA have to do to become a perennial powerhouse?
“(It takes) a real commitment from the administration,” said C. Trent Rosecrans, now a reporter at The Athletic and former beat writer for Bulldog basketball for the Athens Banner-Herald. “An energetic and charismatic coach who can keep in-state talent – I honestly thought they had a home run under their nose in Jonas Hayes. And they can dress up Stegeman as much as they want, but it was an outdated barn when I started school nearly 30 years ago. Band-aids don’t cut it.
“It’s never felt like UGA has really prioritized basketball.. Sure, they throw enough at it that it would be nice if they were good, but they’ve never really put in the effort.”
Smith echoed the need for talent to build a successful program.
“It comes down to recruiting,” Smith said. “It always comes down to players. The better players you have, the better coach you’re gonna be. I think you have to be consistently getting players. Obviously things have changed with the portal, but you have to get some really good high school kids mixed with some portal guys mixed with some veteran guys who have been around the program. I think that’s how you become consistent.”
And maybe there is some change coming. 24/7 Sports currently ranks the Dawgs 2023 recruiting class at 35th in the nation – sixth in the SEC – with two four-star recruits. Sure, it’s not great, but it bodes much better than two years prior when Georgia had the 65th ranked class in the nation and second-to-last in the SEC.
But Towers brings up another point – the way seasons are scheduled has an effect on the program.
“Part of it I think is the overlap of football and basketball,” he said. “Basketball gets zero attention this time of year because there is so much great attention paid to the football team. The opposite is true at Kentucky; they’re all talking about basketball up there already. It’s just the opposite.
“I’ve always felt that sports need to be more separated on the calendar, even for the Kentuckys and Kansases of the world… For whatever reason, football has had an overshadowing effect on basketball.”
He also doesn’t see the problem with Stegeman.
“You can argue the facility, but I’ve seen Stegeman Coliseum on fire from a fan engagement standpoint,” Towers said. “I’ve seen it, so I know it can be done. I don’t think the building makes a difference – look at (Duke’s) Cameron Indoor Stadium.”
Waller echoed the facility isn’t necessarily the problem, but talent is.
“When Stegeman is hopping, it’s a very good arena,” Waller said. “We have good fans, we have a good fan base. I think back to the game where Quavo was there and he was on the sideline with Trae Young. That was a great atmosphere, that was fun.
“In order to do that on a regular basis and, more importantly, to be able to do that in games in late February and early March, you have to field a team that puts you in a position to be playing for something then. And that’s the first step.”
So will new head coach Mike White, who took the rival Florida Gators to four NCAA tournaments in six full seasons, be able to turn things around? Will he be able to recruit Atlanta and the state, draw fans back to the program?
Time will tell, but Smith, who played against White in college, thinks he has a good chance.
“Having someone like Mike White who’s been in the league for a long time, an assistant at Ole Miss for a while, obviously head coach at Florida, so he’s got some experience,” Smith said. “I think he’ll get the job done.”