Kentucky comes to Stegeman Coliseum tonight freshly minted as the nation’s top-ranked team with a roster again loaded with highly coveted players.
The Wildcats’ entire freshman recruiting class — Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague and Kyle Wiltjer — were McDonald’s All-Americans and there are six total on the roster.
Georgia is ecstatic to have its one — freshman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
The 6-foot-5, 200-pound wing from Greenville, Ga., is the first player to receive that prestigious honor who has gone from high school to Georgia since 1992, when power forward Carlos Strong from Cedar Shoals arrived to play for Hugh Durham.
“Basically what it gets down to is, if you’re going to be good, you’ve got to have good players,” said Durham, the Bulldogs’ coach from 1978 to 1995. “We didn’t have a string of McDonald’s guys but we had quite a few.”
They included Dominique Wilkins, Terry Fair, Vern Fleming and Litterial Green, but Caldwell-Pope ended a nearly 20-year drought (not including N.C. State transfer Damien Wilkins).
“I didn’t know about the history until I got here,” Caldwell-Pope said.
Caldwell-Pope phoned coach Mark Fox in July, 2010 to let him know about his college decision while Fox was on a runway on a commercial flight about to take off during a recruiting trip.
“I saw the number so I answered the phone,” Fox said. “This flight attendant was saying, ‘You have to hang up your phone.’ He said, ‘I’ve got good news for you.’ ”
With the flight attendant standing over him, Fox told Caldwell-Pope he had to call him back.
“We were actually airborne at the time and lost the connection and didn’t finish it,” Fox said. “I had a good idea we were going to get good news.”
Fox said Georgia had already used its one call that week under NCAA rules and Caldwell-Pope didn’t call back for three or four days. Fox was at dinner when it came.
“Left the table,” Fox said when asked what he did when that call came.
Fox’s highest-profile recruit at Georgia is living up to the billing.
He scored a career-high 25 points in a 66-63 loss to Ole Miss Saturday and has hit double figures in 16 of 19 games.
“He’s a game-changer as a player for their program,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Mark has done well,” in landing a player of Caldwell-Pope’s caliber.
Caldwell-Pope leads Georgia in scoring (14.7 points per game, sixth in the SEC), 3-pointers (44, third in SEC), steals (1.8, fifth) and minutes played (31.6).
“We’re asking him to do probably more than is fair, but he’s really scored the ball for us and seems to be getting more and more comfortable each week,” Fox said. “He’s very coachable, unbelievably coachable and I think that’s why he continues to make progress.”
So how did Georgia land Caldwell-Pope?
“They really didn’t do too much,” said the soft-spoken Caldwell-Pope. “I really wanted to stay in-state to go to school and Georgia was my main school I wanted to go to. I just chose to stay home.”
Fox called the recruitment of Caldwell-Pope “very genuine,” and that his family was looking for sincerity in Georgia’s pitch.
Caldwell-Pope said he spoke to Kentucky some before they stopped recruiting him.
He said Georgia “stayed on me real hard.”
Assistant Philip Pearson helped the Bulldogs land him over Tennessee and Clemson. Caldwell-Pope said he liked Pearson’s sense of humor.
“I think it was about just being honest about what we felt like he could do for our program and what we felt like our program and our institution could do for him,” Fox said. “He’s a wonderful young man and has already made an impact in our team and will continue to. It is important for us to continue to recruit the best players to help us win and there are a lot them in this state.”
That hasn’t been easy historically at a program that ranks 11th in the SEC in all-time winning percentage, ahead of only Ole Miss.
Strong thinks the lack of continuity in the coaching staff since Durham—Fox is the fifth head coach since then–played a part in the inability to land top-shelf talent.
Strong said Durham built up a rapport with former players and they talked up the program in the state.
“Once the program started to go down and we started to change coaches in and out when Tubby (Smith) left, it sort of lost touch with the past players,” Strong said. “I’m not saying that’s why they didn’t get (top-rated) players, but I’ve got a lot of friends that played with Kentucky like Tony Delk and those guys. All of those guys are always around the program. When they’re out playing, they don’t have to say much back in their hometowns, they just know if a guy comes and ask them about Kentucky they’re going to be positive about it because they’ve had positive experiences. I think that’s what coach Fox is doing here now.”
Fox has reached out to former players, inviting them to games and to his “Suits & Sneakers” fundraiser to fight cancer.
“We’ve tried to open the doors to those guys and let them know that they’re welcome any time,” Fox said. “We’ve tried to bring them back into the family.”
“We appreciate that,” said Strong, who played professionally for 11 years and who now works with kids at a basketball academy and summer camp in Oconee County while working to complete his Georgia degree.
Talk to some of Caldwell-Pope’s teammates and they’ll tell you they knew before he arrived—from playing with him in AAU or when he visited the school–that he would fit into the team despite being a hotshot recruit.
“The thing I enjoy about watching the Pope kid is he seems like he’s team-oriented as much as being talented,” Durham said. “Guys like that will set the tone. From what I hear, all of his teammates really like him and nobody knows you better than your teammates.”
Georgia can only hope more top talent finds its way to Athens after Caldwell-Pope.
“I hope so,” he said, “I hope we can get high-profile players to come to school here.”