On a roll, Bulldogs hit road to face Volunteers

The grind of an 82-game NBA schedule doesn’t allow a lot of downtime to check up on friends, but Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has tried to keep up with Georgia’s basketball team this season.

Even before he was among a sell-out crowd for Saturday’s home win over Ole Miss during the all-star break, the Detroit Pistons rookie tuned into a few games of a team that now stands all alone in third in the Southeastern Conference.

“Georgia’s done pretty good,” the former Bulldogs guard said. “They’re winning games, they’re playing hard as I can see. I try to catch a game every now and then when I can. They’ve been playing well.”

So well that Georgia (14-10, 8-4 SEC) is just a game behind second-place Kentucky in the league standings and has put itself in position for a possible NIT bid, something that guard Kenny Gaines said has creeped into the locker room conversation “just a little bit.”

Not that coach Mark Fox wants his players thinking about that.

“I heard a couple of our guys talk about that and that’s going to be the last of that,” Fox said Monday after they completed media interviews.

Georgia has one postseason appearance in Fox’s previous four seasons—an NCAA tournament game in 2011—and said this team with one senior isn’t concerning itself with that now and isn’t mature enough to manage more than getting ready for what’s next on the schedule.

“Our focus always has been and will remain on the next game,” Fox said. “If you do that, the rest of it seems to take care of itself.”

Last season with Caldwell-Pope carrying the Bulldogs en route to Southeastern Conference Player of the Year honors, Georgia got its last win—its 15th overall and ninth in the SEC—on March 7.

Georgia can match those win totals tonight. It plays at 9 at Tennessee (15-10, 6-6), which is contending for an NCAA tournament at-large bid but has lost three of the last four.

The Bulldogs carry the SEC’s second longest current winning streak — four games — into the matchup.

Much of the core of last year’s team —minus Caldwell-Pope —remains, including guards Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines, center Donte’ Williams, forwards Nemanja Djurisc and Brandon Morris and a now healthy Marcus Thornton inside.

“That’s all they needed, just confidence within themselves,” Caldwell-Pope said. “Just keep pushing and playing hard. We had that last year, we just couldn’t put it together. They’ve gotten together this year and they’re doing great.”

Georgia’s official NCAA RPI has jumped to No. 88, up from No. 239 when it started SEC play after going 6-6 in the nonconference while having what Fox said was a “major adjustment learning to play without Kentavious.”

The team has grown up into one that not only has compiled a better record but is in fact a better team, Fox said, than a year ago.

“We have to depend on each other instead of having to depend on Kentavious more,” Gaines said. “That kind of forces us to play for each other and play harder.”

Georgia’s work on the backboards has been a big reason why it is where it is in the SEC, but Tennessee will test the Bulldogs’ ability to rebound.

“We kind of gang-rebound,” Fox said. “It’s been a little bit of an advantage for most of the year. Not that it’s the only thing we rely on but it’s just something we’ve been pretty consistent with.”

Georgia is second in rebounding margin in SEC play at 7.9, but the Volunteers are tops at 8.2.

“You’ve just got to want it more than the other team and other person,” Williams said. “I know they’ve got two big guys that can rebound it well. …We’ve just got to compete on the glass.”

Jarnell Stokes is averaging 11.3 rebounds in league play, tops in the SEC and Jerrone Maymon in third at 8.2. Stokes averages 14.2 points per game and is the only player in the league averaging a double-double in league play.

Caldwell-Pope was Georgia’s leading rebounder the past two seasons.

He returned in January also, visiting practice unexpectedly when he had a couple of days off in a row in the schedule. Fox says Caldwell-Pope, who left after his sophomore season, is welcomed like he’s still part of the team.

“We’d have been terrific if he stayed,” Fox said. “We’re just better because we have Marcus back (from injury), because Nemi has improved, Kenny Gaines has improved, Charles has improved, Brandon Morris has improved and that’s why we’re better.”

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Georgia WRs Scott-Wesley, Mitchell not expected back this week http://t.co/1z9bQMYYDr #UGA

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