Last week, we began our deep dive into everything you’d ever want to know about Mark Fox with a look at his history as a recruiter - how he built his teams, how long his recruits stayed on campus, and whether or not he was able to produce NBA talent.
This time around, we’re looking at the team-wide statistical results his teams at Georgia produced, with an eye toward not just strengths and weaknesses, but also style and strategy.
As is often the case, pretty much everything below will be pulled from Kenpom’s history, because his website is designed about a million times better than anything the NCAA has ever produced.
Putting the ball into the net was probably the single biggest reason that Fox’s Georgia teams struggled to win games. Only once (in Fox’s first year in Athens) did the Bulldogs put up a eFG% above the national average, and even then the peak was at a hardly thrilling 111th in the nation. Most of Fox’s Georgia tenure saw shooting stats that were mired in 200s.
If you break up Georgia’s shooting into component parts, what you get is a picture of an offense that really doesn’t know how to earn easy 2 point baskets. Georgia’s 3 point shooting ebbed and flowed, putting up years that ranged from good (37% shooting in 2016) to average to bad (31% shooting in 2012). But Georgia’s 2 point shooting was never good and occasionally ghastly, like the ~44% 2 point shooting Georgia put up in twice in a row in 2013 and 2014, which is worse than what Cal put up under Wyking Jones.
Yes, Georgia’s offense did find ways to make up for their inability to hit shots (more on that below) but it’s basically impossible to produce a good offense without at least average shooting, something the Bulldogs only managed on occasion.
Here’s where Fox’s Georgia squads starting to make up for some of their shooting issues - Georgia was consistently an above-average offensive rebounding squad, which is interesting for three reasons:
- Fox’s teams weren’t remarkably tall on average, and recruiting rankings would suggest that they probably weren’t remarkably athletic on average either.
- Fox maintained high offensive rebounding numbers even as offensive rebounding rate declined nationally as coaches focused more on transition defense.
- I don’t see any particular statistical evidence that Georgia’s offensive rebounding had a concurrent negative impact on the defensive end.
In any case, I would anticipate that Fox will continue to allow some percentage of his players to crash the offensive boards. I’m in favor of this approach, personally.
Like any coach, Fox’s turnover rate fluctuates based on personnel - his worst turnover season at Georgia coincided with a freshman starting point guard. But it’s also true that Georgia’s average turnover rate is pretty high, and Fox only produced one season at Georgia with a below average turnover percentage. Again, without watching tape, Fox’s Georgia offenses have the hallmark of teams that struggle knowing how to earn good shots.
Fox’s other big strength - his teams draw a ton of fouls. In fact, each of his last six teams at Georgia finished in the top 50 nationally in free throw rate. Moreover, Georgia’s free throw rate tended to hold steady in SEC play, and you saw high individual free throw rates up and down the roster. If Georgia struggled to get guys open shots, they at least didn’t shy away from attacking a defended bucket and drawing contact.
Georgia’s free throw shooting percentage itself was, unsurprisingly variable. But it was never abominable and occasionally good. Besides, we already have a pretty good sense of how good Cal’s current players shoot from the line.
Other stylistic hallmarks
Fox’s teams have never been particularly interested in attempting 3 point shots. That’s been a consistent thing even at Nevada, and even on the rare occasions when Georgia had good outside shooting. Is it disturbing to me that, in 2016, Georgia had the following ranks:
2pt%: 44.8%, 314th nationally
3pt%: 36.8%, 66th nationally
3 point attempt rate: 31.6%, 259th nationally
Yes, yes it is disturbing when a team is much better at shooting 3s than 2s, yet continues to attempt 3s at a below average rate.
When you add up all of the components - bad, high volume 2 point shooting, above average turnover rate, good offensive rebounding, drawing tons of fouls . . . what you get is the picture of an offense that is doggedly determined to get the ball to the bucket, but without a particularly great plan for how to do that. But there was juuuust enough doggedly determined effort to keep an offense in the 75-150 range nationally . . . which isn’t good enough to consistently compete in a power conference, but is indeed better than what Cal has managed over the last two seasons.
This is, by a pretty wide margin, Fox’s biggest strength. In seven of his nine years at Georgia, his defense finished in the top 40 in eFG% defense. Three of his five Nevada teams also managed that distinction. Only two of his squads have finished outside of the top 100, and one of those was his first season in Georgia. In other words, it might take a season, but expect rugged defenses at Cal.
How? Well, there are of course plenty of variance related fluctuations, but Fox’s teams have always suppressed 2 point shooting%, have surprisingly strong 3 point shooting % numbers (more on that below) and also tend to block a disproportionate percentage of shots relative to their size.
Now that we’ve established a very very strong defensive foundation, we’re going to slowly chip away at it a bit. Fox’s teams tend to be only so-so at securing the defensive glass. I honestly suspect that his teams look to block shots so often that it occasionally gets guys out of position to block out and rebound, though I obviously have no visual evidence for that hypothesis.
Fox’s teams have never made any real effort to force turnovers, which is a super common trade off that both Monty and Cuonzo made before Wyking Jones put in place a turnover forcing zone. Fox wants to make your shots as difficult as possible, and that appears to be by far his #1 focus.
This is the most inconsistent defensive statistical marker of Fox’s teams. He’s had some squads that were really foul averse, and others that sent teams to the line a lot. And that was in some cases the difference between a top 25 or top 50 Georgia defense vs. a top 75 or top 100 Georgia defense.
I’m guessing this might just be an innate thing with some players - Fox’s defense is clearly predicated on being in place to contest or block an opponent’s shot. Sometimes, Fox has players that can contest without fouling, and other times he doesn’t.
Other stylistic hallmarks
I suspect that if you asked Mark Fox what he wants to see from his team on defense is that they limit teams to one really tough shot per possession, without fouling. And his teams have been very, very good about the ‘tough shot’ part of the equation. The main question is whether or not they can make that shot tough without fouling, and then hold the opposition to just the one attempt.
It might be a year before Fox has been able to drill Cal to play that style of defense, and based on last year’s stats and potential transfers, the transition could be rough. But Fox has earned the benefit of the doubt on this side of the ball.
Worth noting: Fox’s teams have not shown a consistent ability to suppress 3 point shot attempts from their opponents, while simultaneously putting up above average 3pt% defense. Might Mark Fox be one of the rare coaching unicorns with a defense that somehow exerts more control over 3 point shooting percentage than average? I’m doubtful but open to being wrong.
Also worth noting: Fox’s defenses tend to suppress offensive assists. That, again, is a common statistical hallmark of a sound positional defense that doesn’t give away easy shots. And in the context of 3 point shooting, assisted 3 pointers are on average better shots, so maybe Fox’s defenses take away more assisted 3 pointers while allowing unassisted 3 point looks.
Georgia’s offensive pace has ranged from almost average (2016, 2017) to excruciatingly slow (2012, 2013, 2018). And to be clear, that pace is more driven by his offense than by a defense that doesn’t really have a consistent pace. Georgia’s weaker offenses under Fox tended to play slower, but I can’t say if that’s because Fox wanted them to play slow, or it just took them longer to find a good shot because they weren’t talented enough to find a shot with any speed.
A fair warning: If Fox’s Cal teams end up playing offense similarly to his Georgia teams, you’re in for a double whammy of offense that is painful both in terms of results and style.
Based on his time at Georgia Fox tends to have a preference to play a bit more into his bench than average and not play his starters huge minutes, and he appears to be pretty rigid about sitting players when they get into foul trouble. But neither is he a guy who will play a 10 player rotation to constantly keep guys fresh. It’s a pretty standard rotation/minutes pattern.
Hey, how does slow basketball with lots of iffy shooting and more than an average amount of fouls sound to you? Because if Mark Fox is looking to try to play the same type of basketball at Cal as he did at Georgia, then that’s what you should expect.
OK, that might be a bit flippant and unfair. After all, I love watching an opposing offense struggle to find a good shot before putting up a contested prayer that Cal rebounds (Miss u, 2016 Cal defense). We’re likely to get some of that eventually.
But if Fox is going to surpass his Georgia performance, he’s going to have to be a better offensive coach. Maybe that means he needs to recruit better. Maybe that means that he needs to reconsider his offensive concepts and strategy. Maybe both. But when the next season comes rolling around, whether or not it looks like Fox has turned over a new leaf on the offensive side of the ball might be an early indicator of whether or not his Cal tenure can turn into something more than his Georgia tenure.