Bulldogs need more pieces to improve

semerson@macon.comMarch 7, 2012 

NEW ORLEANS -- This is the way it works at almost every SEC school: National Signing Day takes place the first Wednesday in February. The next day, casual fans of their school wake up and take stock for the first time on their men’s basketball team.

So it was at Georgia this year as a season of basketball transition was largely overlooked until football recruit Josh Harvey-Clemons had finally signed. And what those casual basketball fans saw displeased them: A losing record. Some very bad blowouts. A good win sprinkled in here and there, but overall a struggle. As they arrive in New Orleans this week for the SEC tournament, the Bulldogs have the 11th seed -- out of 12. Not good.

A few impatient fans wondered out loud: Could head coach Mark Fox be on the hot seat?

To which we laugh and say, no, no, an emphatic no. A contract extension last spring took care of that, and by making it to the NCAA tournament last year Fox banked enough goodwill to get him through a couple down years.

But this much is clear: As Fox wraps up his third season in Athens, it is evident that the program needs an infusion of talent.

The future isn’t bleak. But a few things need to go right for the Bulldogs to get back to the NCAA tournament in the next few years.

1. Freshman guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope must stay through at least his junior year. Caldwell-Pope, who was named to the SEC’s all-freshman team Tuesday, is the closest thing the Bulldogs have to an All-SEC type of player. He can score the basketball, as the coaches like to say, and he appears to be a good teammate.

2. One of the incoming recruits has to turn out better than anticipated. Charles Mann, Brandon Morris and Kenny Gaines are all rated three-star recruits, which collectively is fine, but teams don’t get to the top half of the SEC without marquee talent. Just ask South Carolina, which thought it was building a future with top 100 talent, but the problem was that talent wasn’t top 50, and the Gamecocks are abysmal now. Those teams in the top half of the SEC are recruiting top 25 and top 50 talent.

3. Fox and his staff need to reel in one more big recruit. And it would help if he were a big man. Perhaps it can be Tony Parker, the top 25 big man who is being recruited by the “blue schools” -- Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina. It’s not considered likely that Georgia will be able to pull in Parker, who is Morris’ high school teammate, but the Bulldogs aren’t out of it yet.

Caldwell-Pope remains the best player Fox and his staff have recruited. They inherited Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie -- not to mention center Jeremy Price -- and the trio helped lead Georgia to the NCAA tournament last year. Fox gets credit for coaching those players up, so the evidence is there that he can do it again.

The problem for the Bulldogs right now is they really just have pieces of an NCAA-level team and players they hope can turn into high-level talent. Sophomore forwards Marcus Thornton and Donte’ Williams are athletic for their size, but neither is close to being a true center. Freshman Nemanja Djurisic has shown he can play in the SEC, but is he a second or a third scoring option? And unless freshmen John Cannon or Tim Dixon develop quickly, there’s no true center capable of playing major minutes yet.

Look at how last year’s team was constituted: two stars (Thompkins and Leslie), two more good post players (Price and Chris Barnes) and a couple of experienced guards (Gerald Robinson and Dustin Ware). And that team still only eked into the tournament and didn’t get past the first round. But it still made it.

Who knows, maybe Georgia is closer than we think. Thompkins was a major recruit, but Leslie blossomed as a sophomore. So it helps that the Bulldogs are at least bringing in players with potential, even if they’re not the ready-made college stars that Kentucky gets every year -- or even Florida or Vanderbilt.

The Bulldogs arrive in New Orleans for their conference tournament and barring a 2008-style miracle, their stay will not be long. Ware and Robinson will graduate, and the program will turn toward the fourth year of the Fox era.

The presence of Caldwell-Pope, who has already ruled out the NBA after this season, is cause for some optimism. A few serviceable pieces, like Djurisic, Thornton and Williams, are cause for hope, too.

But this program still needs more pieces, and probably one more star. And Fox knows that.

Contact Seth Emerson at semerson@macon.com

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