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Friday, October 26, 2012
Team preview: Georgia

Blue Ribbon Yearbook

For the most comprehensive previews available on all 335 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2012-13 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857.

COACH AND PROGRAM

Georgia coach Mark Fox isn't ready to say the rebuilding job he inherited is complete, but he likes the progress the program has made in his first three seasons.

"I probably feel better about Georgia basketball today than I ever have," Fox said. "We felt this was a difficult situation -- a complete rebuilder. And we had a couple of curve balls thrown our way with a couple of guys leaving early, and we weren't in position to withstand that. But I believe we can win at a very high level."

Those two curve balls were named Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie, both of whom declared for the NBA Draft after the 2010-11 season and were chosen in the second round by the Los Angeles Clippers. Kentucky may be able to lose multiple draft picks every year and retool with McDonald's All-Americans. Not Georgia.

Actually, that's not entirely true. Fox and his staff did bring in 6-5 Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a consensus five-star recruit, and he was good as a freshman, earning a spot on the SEC All-Freshman team. But despite Caldwell-Pope (13.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1.2 apg, 1.8 spg) and the presence of two veteran guards, departed seniors Gerald Robinson (14.2 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 3.5 apg) and Dustin Ware (8.1 ppg, 2.3 apg), the Bulldogs couldn't finish above .500. Their lack of overall firepower (60.9 ppg, .395 FG, .312 3PT) left them vulnerable.

But the last five games of the season, the Bulldogs -- who started 1-7 in Southeastern Conference play -- developed some bite, beating Florida at home and Mississippi State in the first round of the SEC tournament.

Caldwell-Pope was front and center in those two wins, and another freshman, 6-8, 230-pound Nemanja Djurisic began playing like a guy who might one day average a double-double.

Georgia's play in March gave Fox and his staff reason for hope. So did a recruiting class that saw Georgia land three of the four in-state high school players it targeted -- only Tony Parker, a four-star recruit from state power Miller Grove, disappointed with his late-April decision to attend UCLA -- helping reverse a long trend of the big state school failing to mine the rich lode of talent within close proximity.

In its last three recruiting classes, Georgia has signed two former Georgia Mr. Basketballs -- 6-8, 230-pound junior Marcus Thornton (3.0 ppg, 4.8 rpg), whose 2011-12 season was wrecked by injury, and McDonald's All-American Caldwell-Pope -- and three players -- Kenneth Gaines, Charles Mann and Brandon Morris -- who helped lead their respective high schools to Georgia state championships in 2012.

"We've made a lot of progress," Fox said about restocking his roster with homegrown talent. "We're not going to completely solve overnight a problem that's been around a quarter century, but we've made a lot of headway."

That will be evident this season if Caldwell-Pope takes the next step in his development, Thornton can play without pain in his knees and Gaines, Mann and Morris assume spots in the rotation, which Fox expects to happen.

Caldwell-Pope made a big impact on the SEC -- Kentucky's John Calipari called him "a game changer," -- despite the fact he played out of position at the three. That allowed him to lead Georgia in rebounding, but it hampered his development in other ways.

"Playing out of position every night against older, more physical players hurt his productivity," Fox said. "Now that I've got him back at his natural position [two guard] and he's a year older, he's probably going to become the guy that's the face of our program."

Caldwell-Pope was probably too reliant on the 3-pointer last year, cranking out 214 shots from behind the arc. He made 65, but his .304 percentage has to improve, as does his .654 free-throw percentage.

Thornton was leading Georgia in rebounding (5.8 rpg) through the first 12 games of last season, but he injured his right knee against Furman and had to undergo arthroscopic surgery. Thornton missed five games and wasn't nearly as effective after his return. After the season, he underwent surgery on his left knee and wasn't able to play during the Bulldogs' trip to Italy in August. That was his third knee surgery in two years.

"Once he's healthy, we think he can be very effective for us," Fox said. "He's extremely powerful. He can guard four positions. He's a very good rebounder, and his offense is coming along.

"He's never been able to get comfortable offensively because he's never been healthy. He's a great leaper and hasn't been able to use it because of his injuries. But when he's healthy, he can drive it to the basket, knock down a three and can post up some."

With Thornton injured, 6-9, 225-pound junior Donte Williams (7.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg) had to become a major con-tributor inside. After averaging six minutes a game as a freshman, Williams played 25.9 a game last season and his numbers improved markedly. He led Georgia in blocked shots (51), was second in rebounding and scored in double figures seven times, including a pair of 17-point games against South Dakota State and Kentucky.

Along with Williams, Djurisic (7.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg) also began to emerge in 2011-12. He started 12 times at the four position and showed signs of becoming a legit inside-out player. He put together consecutive double-figure rebounding games in March (10 against South Carolina, 11 against Mississippi State) and shot .364 from 3 (20 of 55), second on the team.

"He's as versatile an offensive player as we probably have," Fox said. "He can shoot threes and also post up and score. He's an excellent passer. Physically, he was probably thrown into the fire before he was ready after Trey Thompkins left, but he was a very good player for us."

Georgia has some size and depth in the post, if the trio of 6-9, 225-pound sophomore Tim Dixon (0.3 ppg, 0.9 rpg), 6-10, 240-pound sophomore John Cannon (1.3 ppg, 0.9 rpg) and 6-11, 240-pound senior John Florveus (1.8 ppg, 1.8 rpg) can take the next step.

Dixon and Cannon played sparingly as freshmen, but Florveus, who transferred from junior college a year ago, played in 32 games, started three times and averaged 12.8 minutes. He blocked 22 shots, second on the team. Florveous added 20 pounds of muscle in the offseason, which should help him do battle in a league that's traditionally filled with athletic, physical post players.

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Two veteran guards will get an opportunity to fend off the challenges of two freshmen. Vincent Williams (2.9 ppg, 1.0 rpg, 1.3 apg), a 6-0 senior point, started 11 games as a junior, put together a solid assist-to-turnover ratio (1.8) and was a respectable 3-point shooter (.333).

"He was very solid," Fox said. "He was playing behind our best player in Gerald Robinson, but this season he'll have a great opportunity to play significant minutes."

Sherrard Brantley (1.7 ppg, 0.8 rpg), a 6-2 senior, was brought in from junior college to make 3s, but in two seasons he's averaged .288 from behind the arc, including .255 last season (13 of 51).

Brantley had better make more shots if he wants to play, because freshman guards Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines should quickly move into Fox's rotation.

At 6-4, Mann is a true point guard who last season averaged 16.2 points and 5.8 assists and led Milton High School of Alpharetta, Ga. to the Class AAAAA state championship. ESPN rated him the No. 21 point guard nationally.

"He has a natural instinct to pass the ball and make people better," Fox said. "He'll compete for the starting job with Vincent Williams."

Gaines, a 6-3 scoring machine from Whitefield Academy in Atlanta, averaged 25.2 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.6 steals last season for a team that won the Class A state title. ESPN rated him the No. 24 shooting guard in his class.

"He's an explosive scoring guard, a terrific athlete who knows how to put the ball in the basket," Fox said. "We think he ultimately will be able to play both guard spots, but we probably won't do that to him his freshman year."

Fox says both rookie guards can make 3-pointers, which could help shore up a major 2011-12 weakness.

Yet another Georgia freshman helped his high school claim a state title a year ago. Brandon Morris, a 6-7 combo forward, averaged 10.9 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.3 blocks for Miller Grove of Lithonia, Ga. which won its fourth straight Class AAAA championship. Morris was overshadowed in high school by the more heralded Tony Parker, but Fox is expecting big things from him.

"Brandon Morris will probably be the best player out of our freshman class," Fox said. "He's going to be a terrific SEC player. He's another versatile guy who's long and very athletic. He's a great rebounder, and I think he will be an awesome defender. He can make an open jump shot and drive it to the basket."

When Parker opted for UCLA, Georgia knew where to turn for help in its frontcourt. Houston Kessler, a 6-8 freshman, is no Tony Parker, but he is a legacy recruit -- his father is Chad Kessler, a four-year Georgia letterman, and his uncle was the late Alec Kessler, Georgia's No. 2 career scorer.

The younger Kessler, is a stretch four man, is probably ticketed for a redshirt season, and there's precedent within his family to suggest that could pay dividends.

"His dad was drafted into the NBA," Fox said. "But his uncle was a lottery pick. The difference was dad did not redshirt, but his uncle did. We'd really like to redshirt Houston if we can. He's a good shooter and rebounder who can eventually help us."

Kessler didn't win a Georgia high school championship in 2012, but he was a first-team Class A pick who ended up as the leading scorer in Landmark Christian School (Fairburn, Ga.) history. Kessler racked up 1,600 career points and more than 1,000 career rebounds.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

BACKCOURT: B-
BENCH/DEPTH: C
FRONTCOURT: B-
INTANGIBLES: C+

Early defections to the NBA and injuries have hampered the program under Mark Fox's watch, but he enters his fourth season in Athens with a full roster that includes nine scholarship players from talent-rich Georgia. If the trend of keeping in-state talent at home continues, this program will rise above the two-steps-forward-one-step-back mode it's been stuck in the last couple of decades.

As for this season, the Bulldogs will be young and have to answer some questions. Can Caldwell-Pope elevate his game? Can Thornton shake off the knee injuries that have hampered his progress? Can freshman guards Mann and Gaines make immediate contributions?

If the answer to those questions turns out to be yes, Georgia will produce a winning record and could claim a postseason tournament berth. The NCAAs probably aren't realistic this season, but a spot in the NIT would be a step in the right direction.

For the most comprehensive previews available on all 335 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2012-13 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857.