ATHENS -- Mark Fox spent the offseason leading up to his fifth year with the Georgia basketball program doing everything he could to foster goodwill and inject confidence into his team.
He painted his face and donned spiked shoulders at a football game. He took over the drive-thru window at a restaurant. He even voted his own team No. 25 in the preseason coaches poll.
Now there’s just one thing left to do, and it will take more than good public relations spin -- win.
Georgia begins its fifth season under Fox on Friday night, and whether there will be a sixth might depend on how things go this month. It goes back to last year, when the Bulldogs started 3-7, losing games to the likes of Youngstown State, Southern Miss and Iona.
The Bulldogs eventually pulled out of the funk and went 9-9 in SEC play. But the month of November left a mark. Donte’ Williams, the lone senior on this year’s team, said the Bulldogs looked back during SEC play and thought about what could have been.
“We’ve got a lot of guys returning, and we witnessed how the season started last year,” Williams said. “We know that we’ve gotta start out with a good start. We can’t wait until the end to turn it up.”
Of course the task is made harder by the fact that one of the players not back was by far the best one.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope led Georgia in every major statistical category and was the SEC player of the year last season. The season raised his stock, and he elected to turn pro, validating the decision by going eighth overall in the NBA draft to Detroit.
The Bulldogs have no clear successor to Caldwell-Pope. They have plenty of players with minutes played back from last year’s team but not as much scoring, rebounding or defense. Those are issues they’ve worked through in the offseason but will have to test in this perilous month of November.
“We can practice without Kentavious. Can we play without him? That’s the question we all are asking,” Fox said. “How long will it take us to make that adjustment?”
Three-point shooting and low-post play appear to be big concerns. Rebounding and inside scoring have been the main issue the previous two years, as well. The team needs to find shooting to replace Caldwell-Pope, and much of it falls on sophomore guard Kenny Gaines, taking Caldwell-Pope’s spot in the lineup.
“A lot of people are putting pressure on me to play like Kentavious,” Gaines said. “I just wanna go out there and play like Kenny.”
Georgia opens against Wofford, which went 13-19 last year but returns all five starters. A week later, Georgia Tech visits, followed by a trip to the Charleston Classic, where the Bulldogs figure to have three challenging games.
Fox has last year’s poor start on his mind and has spoken to individual players about it. He went to sophomores Gaines and Charles Mann and reminded them that part of the reason the team struggled in November was that Caldwell-Pope and Nemanja Djurisic, then sophomores, didn’t play up to par that month.
“So those guys as sophomores have to be better players and respond to a bigger role better than Nemi and Kentavious did,” Fox said.
Another issue last November, according to Fox, was the play of the bench. The young players -- namely Gaines, Mann and Brandon Morris -- weren’t ready to help enough. So Fox has implored his freshmen to be able to contribute this year. Guards Juwan Parker and J.J. Frazier and sophomore forward Cameron Forte are among the newcomers who figure to get key playing time.
“We’ve tried to use the experience of last November to make this group better out of the gate,” Fox said.
Fox also tried to send a message to his team -- and to others, he claims -- by voting the Bulldogs No. 25 on his USA Today coaches ballot. It was the only vote for the team, which was picked to finish 11th in the SEC.
“He believes in us,” Djurisic said. “He thinks we have a good, long team. We are very athletic. We’re a combination of young, but also some experienced guys. We do only have one senior, but a lot of our sophomores and juniors got some minutes last year and the year before. He expects us to win.”