ATHENS -- The unsaid meaning was evident in Georgia head coach Mark Fox’s voice when he talked about why Alabama enters SEC play on a roll.
“Their best players came back. That’s the bottom line,” Fox said of the Crimson Tide, who are 11-3 and on Tuesday won by 25 at Georgia Tech. “Their best players came back, and that’s why they’re having such a great start, and they’ve got a very good team. I’ve got a lot of respect for how they’re playing.”
Georgia, meanwhile, has spent this season trying to find a new identity without Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie, who each left early for the NBA draft. The Bulldogs are 9-5, with one of those losses coming at home to the same Georgia Tech team that just got thumped by Alabama.
On top of it, Georgia will start SEC play without Marcus Thornton, its best interior player. The sophomore had his leg scoped last week, and while he’s expected to return sometime during SEC play, Fox said it would be awhile.
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Still, there is some optimism as the Bulldogs begin SEC play.
They have won five straight, albeit against weaker competition. But along the way they feel they have begun to sort out some of their issues, especially on offense.
“Right now we’re still trying to find out who we are,” said sophomore forward Donte’ Williams, who in Thornton’s absence has taken a larger role. “But I think coming into conference play, since about a month ago until now we’ve made a lot of improvement in finding who we are.”
Williams was asked what a reasonable expectation would be for Georgia this year, one season after riding Thompkins and Leslie to an NCAA tournament berth.
“I think probably winning all our home games, getting a couple wins on the road, would be pretty good for us,” he said. “Especially us having a young team, it’s going to be hard for us, especially playing at Kentucky and Florida. So I think if we get all our home games and get a couple on the road that’d be good.”
That would seem to be a rosy outlook, considering that Georgia has two games apiece against No. 2 Kentucky, No. 13 Florida and Vanderbilt (a preseason top 10 team), with No. 15 Mississippi State and Alabama also on tap.
The Crimson Tide are led by JaMychal Green, a senior forward who is an NBA prospect, along with junior forward Tony Mitchell and sophomore point guard Trevor Releford. The trio was the core of the team that swept Georgia last year, including in the first round of the SEC tournament.
Georgia was banking on its experienced backcourt, led by seniors Gerald Robinson and Dustin Ware. But those two have had their struggles. Ware has been coming off the bench, just as Robinson did during the early stretch of the season.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that with the loss of Trey and Travis, that Dustin and Gerald put way too much pressure on themselves,” Fox said. “Because they saw so many inexperience around them, and they both probably started a little slower than anyone expected. Gerald came off the bench and finally got himself to calm down and play well. And Dustin coming off the bench has been able to relax and play pretty well. Whether we continue to do that I don’t know, but it certainly has worked the past month.”
Freshman guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has been about as good as expected and leads the team with 14.1 points per game and 30 made 3-pointers.
The frontcourt, however, has remained the weak point that it was predicted to be. Williams (7.2 points per game, 4.2 rebounds) has been joined in the starting lineup by freshman Nemanja Djurisic (5.9 points, 3.6 rebounds), but rebounding as a whole has continued to be an issue.
Fox said the Bulldogs are not going small because they didn’t want to hurt their defense, pointing out they’re already small in the backcourt. He said the Bulldogs needed to play “intelligent” in all areas to make up for it.
“We’ve had to change it with the loss of Marcus, I’ll be honest with you,” Fox said. “I mean he’s our most physical player, our leading rebounder. So we’ve had to kind of change our rotation. We can’t quite play quite the same way. He gave us some advantages that we don’t have now, so we’ve had to kind of change the plans.” But I think we have an understanding of what guys can do and can’t do at this change in their careers. And it’s important to know those things. We’ve still got some growing to do.”
Thompkins and Leslie updates
Fox said he spoke on Thursday with Thompkins, who has appeared in four of the Los Angeles Clippers’ first five games, notching 3.3 points per game. Leslie, who like Thompkins was a second-round pick of the Clippers’, has only appeared in two games, scoring four points.
“I’ve supported those guys’ decision. You can’t look backwards,” Fox said. “I think they both are realizing that the pro game is different than the college game, and there are a lot of good players at that level.”