ATHENS, Ga. — Coach Mark Fox often talks about making Georgia relevant on college basketball’s national landscape.
Last season, Fox’s second in Athens, the Bulldogs took some important steps, earning their first NCAA tournament appearance in nine years and first Top 25 ranking since 2003.
Georgia finished 21-12 and won seven road games to top its total of the previous three years combined.
“We improved, but we’re not rebuilt completely,” Fox said Friday. “We’ve made progress, but we still have a little ways to go in establishing a culture of being consistently successful.”
Two weeks into fall practice, the Bulldogs still have too many unanswered questions before Fox can favorably compare this team to last year’s.
Early NBA departures of Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie will hurt as Georgia opens the season without four of its top five scorers and absent its four leading rebounders from 2010-11.
Fox is comfortable with his backcourt, led by fourth-year starter Dustin Ware, but Georgia must follow the senior point guard’s lead and improve its turnover margin to compete with Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Florida and Alabama as the top favorites in the Southeastern Conference.
Shooting guard Gerald Robinson Jr. returns as the leading scorer at 12.2 points per game and is expected to improve his average. Freshman swingman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the Bulldogs’ first McDonald’s All-America signee since Carlos Strong in 1992, should give the offense a considerable lift.
The frontcourt is a bigger concern.
Georgia led the SEC in rebounding last season, but Fox doesn’t know if Marcus Thornton, Donte’ Williams, Connor Nolte and junior-college transfer John Florveus can dominate the boards like Thompkins, Leslie, Jeremy Price and Chris Barnes.
Freshmen Nemanja Djurisic, John Cannon and Tim Dixon are competing for minutes, too.
“It’s an inexperienced group of kids, no doubt,” Fox said. “Our guys have a lot to prove, but we’ve had a very productive offseason. There’s a lot of productivity to replace, and it will be interesting to see how it all plays out, but I feel like everyone has made the most of their time together. We can only get better.”
One means of helping the Bulldogs earn high RPI numbers and impress the NCAA tournament selection committee is the tough schedule Fox draws up each year.
Before the SEC schedule starts, the Bulldogs will visit Xavier, Southern Cal and Colorado, host Cincinnati and rebuilding rival Georgia Tech and face California and either Missouri or Notre Dame on a neutral court in Kansas City.
“I love that we don’t shy away from anybody,” Ware said. “It makes us stronger, not only for the SEC, but for postseason play, too. It will give our young guys a chance to see what it takes to become a winner.”
The SEC schedule offers very few breathers. Even though the league voted in June to disband its two divisions for basketball, the Bulldogs still must play twice against traditional opponents Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Florida, Tennessee and South Carolina.
Georgia opens SEC play when Alabama visits refurbished Stegeman Coliseum on Jan. 7. The home schedule also includes dates against Mississippi and Arkansas, and the Bulldogs will visit Auburn, LSU and Mississippi State.
“No question it’s one of the best leagues in the nation,” Ware said. “I mean it’s really tough. There are probably three top 10 teams in the (former) East Division, but we look at it as a great opportunity to make ourselves better.”
One major hurdle was cleared last month when Caldwell-Pope was ruled eligible by the NCAA. The freshman from Greenville, Ga., was listed along with Bulldogs linebacker Jarvis Jones for allegedly having received improper benefits from an AAU team in Columbus, but both players were cleared of wrongdoing.
“Kentavious has come in with a great attitude,” Ware said. “He’s got the skills to be a good player, but what’s important for our team is that he listens and does what he’s asked to do.”
That’s the approach Fox believes his entire team adopted with its offseason conditioning and workouts. Without Thompkins and Leslie, who were both second-round draft picks by the Los Angeles Clippers, the 42-year-old Fox knows Georgia has plenty of work to do before opening the season with a Nov. 11 home game against Wofford.
His early focus is building a sound defense and putting a premium of smart shot selection. Fox considers this team “more mobile” than last year’s, but says the Bulldogs must limit possessions by opponents while they use a scoring-by-committee standard early in the season.
“We can score points at the 1, 2 and 3 (guard) spots on the floor,” he said. “But right now there’s no solid answer among our big guys. It’s a work in progress.”