Bulldogs confident about next season but await Caldwell-Pope’s decision

Three offseasons ago, Georgia’s run to the NCAA tournament began with an announcement by a sophomore to bypass the NBA draft.

Trey Thompkins joined Travis Leslie in leading Georgia the next season to an at-large berth in 2011.

The shape of Georgia’s 2013-14 season — and the expectations — will be formed in large part by what another underclassman, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, decides to do in the weeks ahead.

The 6-foot-5 sophomore guard accounted for 30.4 percent of the Bulldogs’ points, averaged 18.5 points per game and for the second consecutive season led the team in rebounding.

“Whatever decision he makes, we’re going to have to deal with it,” sophomore forward Nemanja Djurisic said. “We have great players and great coaches and we’re very confident about next year.”

How big is Caldwell-Pope to Georgia’s fortunes next season?

Well, ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes said during Georgia’s 68-63 season-ending loss to LSU in the SEC tournament on Thursday that the Bulldogs would have won only two or three league games this past season without the SEC Player of the Year on the floor but could be a top-25 team next year if Caldwell-Pope returns.

After the departures of Thompkins and Leslie two seasons ago after making the NCAA tournament, Georgia went from 9-7 in the SEC to 5-11.

“This is about Kentavious’ life, this is not about Georgia basketball,” said coach Mark Fox, who plans to provide Caldwell-Pope accurate information from NBA sources about his draft stock. “He’s a part of our program, but we’re going to do what’s the best thing for him. At the time when those guys left, we weren’t in position to lose two guys. We had no depth. We were just in a different state. Early entries do affect your program. There’s no way around that when it happens.”

Georgia finished this season 15-17, an identical record to the previous year and the third losing season in Fox’s four at Georgia, but the Bulldogs improved to 9-9 in SEC play, including a season sweep of Tennessee and a win over Kentucky.

The Bulldogs started in a deep hole twice — 2-7 overall and 1-4 in SEC play — but a team that relied on three freshmen — guards Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines and forward Brandon Morris — put together a five-game SEC winning streak before losing six of its final nine games. Mann, who led the team with 92 assists and was third with 6.7 points per game, was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team.

“We have a lot of guys that are still growing and maturing on the court,” Morris said. “A lot of the situations we were put in, a lot the adversity we were facing really helped me and Charles and Kenny — the freshmen — to experience something different.”

That adversity included Georgia losing seven games by five or less points.

“Just take away a couple of losses, three or four of those close games and we’re right there probably in the top,” said guard Vincent Williams, one of three departing seniors.

Even with Caldwell-Pope, Georgia was offensively challenged on many nights.

The Bulldogs went 9:45 without a field goal in the first half Thursday and their 60.8 points per game was the second lowest average for the program in more than 50 years.

Georgia lacked scoring punch particularly in the low post, where junior Donte’ Williams’s scoring average dipped to 5.1 from 7.8 the previous year, and the Bulldogs’ other players struggled to finish around the hoop.

Georgia’s two signees are both guards — 6-4 Juwan Paker and 5-9 J.J. Frazier. The Bulldogs could find inside help in the late signing period for a frontcourt that will also include Tim Dixon, John Cannon and Marcus Thornton, who will try to return from chronic knee injuries.

Freshman Houston Kessler, who will come off a redshirt season, is said to need to still develop, but is a good shooter.

Georgia’s slow start this season included losses to No. 1 Indiana and No. 11 UCLA, but the Bulldogs also dropped home games to Youngstown State, Southern Miss and Iona.

Georgia’s nonconference schedule for next season so far includes the Charleston Classic in November (with a field that includes Clemson, UAB, Nebraska, New Mexico and Temple), a road game at George Washington and home games in December against Lipscomb and Gardner-Webb and the annual game with Georgia Tech.

The Bulldogs’ chances certainly look better with the player who led them in 12 different individual statistical categories.

Caldwell-Pope said his parents “are in the conversation,” about whether he will stay or go, but ultimately the choice will be his.

“It’s all about coming down to my decision on what I do,” he said.

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