Dogs slow to find confidence
Mark Fox hopes players develop sense of responding well to adversity
ATHENS, Ga. -- As his team prepares to begin the second half of its SEC schedule, Georgia basketball coach Mark Fox sees a glaring issue within his team.
Whether it's the Bulldogs' struggles to scratch out wins late in close games or their inconsistency in finishing plays, Fox said one of their problems is a lack of confidence.
Although the Bulldogs earned an NCAA tournament bid last season, Georgia fans understood coming in that this season would be a rebuilding one after the departure of several key players, including NBA draft picks Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie, who both elected to skip their senior year at Georgia.
With those lowered expectations, however, the Bulldogs' unsightly 1-7 conference record has Fox looking for a way to prevent his young team from giving up before the season concludes.
"These young guys, I'm worried about them," Fox said. "I worry about making sure that they continue to have the right mental approach. I'm concerned that they keep battling because they've had some adversity and you've got to respond to it."
Responding properly requires confidence -- and confidence is a trait that strengthens with experience.
Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, only guards Dustin Ware and Gerald Robinson had much experience at crunch time when the season started. But the Bulldogs have already engaged in several neck-and-neck games this year, and sophomore forward Donte Williams believes those trials will pay off in due time.
"Last year, a lot of times we had a lot of experienced guys who could finish the game who were comfortable in that position," Williams said. "I think this year with a lot of new faces, a lot of guys aren't comfortable in the last two or three minutes when you're up by two or down by two and trying to put a team away. I think if we just keep working, we'll get better at it."
Like most elements with this Georgia team, that growth is a work in process.
Here are three areas in which Georgia fared well in the first half of the SEC schedule, followed by three areas in need of improvement.
What's going well:
1. Playing hard on defense. Fox has at times been critical of the Bulldogs' defense -- particularly when they are defending on the opposite end of the floor away from the Georgia bench -- but his team has played effective team defense overall.
The Bulldogs are fourth in the SEC in scoring defense, allowing 63.1 points per game, although they are ninth in field-goal percentage defense at 42.3 percent.
Opponents regularly shot better than 50 percent from the floor early in Georgia's SEC schedule, but the Bulldogs are faring better at post defense and rebounding since Thornton returned from a knee injury that kept him out for a month.
"I think we've been a little better defensive team now that we have Marcus back," Fox said. "We've been a little better rebounding team."
2. Contributions from KCP. Freshman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope came to Georgia as one of its most-hyped freshmen in many years. While he has rarely dominated games, the freshman has been one of the team's most consistent performers.
He ranks seventh in the SEC in points per game (14.0) and minutes played (32.1), 20th in rebounds (5.2), third in 3-point field goals made (2.2) and fifth in steals (1.8).
Caldwell-Pope said he still feels fresh despite contributing so heavily, so he is not worried about fatigue. His biggest concern is that he and his teammates play with more consistency.
"That's the biggest thing is we need consistency on both ends and just compete for 40 minutes," Caldwell-Pope said.
3. Taking care of the basketball. Fox emphasizes that the Bulldogs must avoid turnovers because of their post inexperience. They have been successful in that regard, ranking fourth in the SEC in turnover margin (plus-1.18) and fifth in assist-to-turnover ratio (plus-1).
Senior guards Robinson and Ware no doubt have an effect on that statistic as they were the only Bulldogs with any significant experience entering the season.
What's going poorly:
1. Late-game lapses. Although Georgia has just one SEC win, all but one of the games were competitive until the opponent clinched victory in the closing minutes.
Lengthy lapses have plagued the Bulldogs at points -- including in last Saturday's loss to Tennessee, where a drought at the end of the first half and another midway through the second half decided the outcome.
"The only thing you can do is try to fight back because it's going to happen. It's the SEC and you're playing against teams that are real good," Williams said. "The spurts are going to happen, but the thing is you've got to fight back and not dig yourself into a hole where you can't come back."
2. Post problems. This was the team's most glaring weakness entering the season and preseason concerns about the post have proven correct.
"When those guys left early, we're just physically immature and we don't have proven pieces so I knew going in we'd have some challenges," Fox said. "In many ways, we had to start over."
Williams and Thornton and freshman Nemanja Djurisic have shown flashes at times, but all three remain inconsistent and post reserves like John Florveus and Tim Dixon are not reliable contributors yet.
3. Scoring consistency. In many ways, this is a byproduct of Georgia's problems in the post. The Bulldogs rank last in the SEC in scoring at 60.6 points per game, but they are getting only 16.4 points per game from Williams, Thornton and Djurisic.
They simply have not been steady enough to take the burden off perimeter players Robinson, Ware and Caldwell-Pope.
When one of those areas is so problematic, it can't help but affect the other.
"Our top three frontline players were 4-for-18 in Knoxville. That's a hard number to overcome," Fox said. "But then two or three days before that, perimeter shooting was the issue. Just becoming a little more consistent and getting all those guys to play well on the same night [would help]."
David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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