The grind of an 82-game NBA schedule doesn‚Äôt allow a lot of downtime to check up on friends, but Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has tried to keep up with Georgia‚Äôs basketball team this season.
Even before he was among a sell-out crowd for Saturday‚Äôs 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.
‚ÄúGeorgia‚Äôs done pretty good,‚Äù the former Bulldogs guard said. ‚ÄúThey‚Äôre winning games, they‚Äôre playing hard as I can see. I try to catch a game every now and then when I can. They‚Äôve been playing well.‚Äù
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 ‚Äújust a little bit.‚Äù
Not that coach Mark Fox wants his players thinking about that.
‚ÄúI heard a couple of our guys talk about that and that‚Äôs going to be the last of that,‚Äù Fox said Monday after they completed media interviews.
Georgia has one postseason appearance in Fox‚Äôs previous four seasons‚Äîan NCAA tournament game in 2011‚Äîand said this team with one senior isn‚Äôt concerning itself with that now and isn‚Äôt mature enough to manage more than getting ready for what‚Äôs next on the schedule.
‚ÄúOur focus always has been and will remain on the next game,‚Äù Fox said. ‚ÄúIf you do that, the rest of it seems to take care of itself.‚Äù
Last season with Caldwell-Pope carrying the Bulldogs en route to Southeastern Conference Player of the Year honors, Georgia got its last win‚Äîits 15th overall and ninth in the SEC‚Äîon 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‚Äôs second longest current winning streak ‚Äî four games ‚Äî into the matchup.
Much of the core of last year‚Äôs team ‚Äîminus Caldwell-Pope ‚Äîremains, including guards Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines, center Donte‚Äô Williams, forwards Nemanja Djurisc and Brandon Morris and a now healthy Marcus Thornton inside.
‚ÄúThat‚Äôs all they needed, just confidence within themselves,‚Äù Caldwell-Pope said. ‚ÄúJust keep pushing and playing hard. We had that last year, we just couldn‚Äôt put it together. They‚Äôve gotten together this year and they‚Äôre doing great.‚Äù
Georgia‚Äôs 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 ‚Äúmajor adjustment learning to play without Kentavious.‚Äù
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.
‚ÄúWe have to depend on each other instead of having to depend on Kentavious more,‚Äù Gaines said. ‚ÄúThat kind of forces us to play for each other and play harder.‚Äù
Georgia‚Äôs work on the backboards has been a big reason why it is where it is in the SEC, but Tennessee will test the Bulldogs‚Äô ability to rebound.
‚ÄúWe kind of gang-rebound,‚Äù Fox said. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs been a little bit of an advantage for most of the year. Not that it‚Äôs the only thing we rely on but it‚Äôs just something we‚Äôve been pretty consistent with.‚Äù
Georgia is second in rebounding margin in SEC play at 7.9, but the Volunteers are tops at 8.2.
‚ÄúYou‚Äôve just got to want it more than the other team and other person,‚Äù Williams said. ‚ÄúI know they‚Äôve got two big guys that can rebound it well. ‚Ä¶We‚Äôve just got to compete on the glass.‚Äù
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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs still part of the team.
‚ÄúWe‚Äôd have been terrific if he stayed,‚Äù Fox said. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôre 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‚Äôs why we‚Äôre better.‚Äù