ATHENS - The most obvious prediction about this young men's basketball season is thus far ringing true: Georgia misses Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Yes, not quite a shocking turn of events.
But here's the surprising part: Georgia has overcome the scoring it lost when the SEC player of the year bolted for the NBA. In fact the Bulldogs have turned into a pretty good offensive team. But they sorely miss the defense provided by the 6-foot-4 Caldwell-Pope, as well as - believe it or not - his rebounding.
There was no obvious scoring replacement for Caldwell-Pope, who accounted for more than 30 percent of Georgia's scoring last season, and yet Georgia is much better offensively: The Bulldogs (3-4) are averaging 75.6 points per game, nearly 15 points higher than their average last year (60.8). They've scored at least 70 points in six of their seven games thus far. Last year the Bulldogs only did that six times, and two of those times were in overtime. And the 87 points scored Monday against Chattanooga was more than any game during Caldwell-Pope's two years at Georgia.
But it's the points the opponents are scoring that is the problem, especially during the four-game losing streak, including the home loss to Georgia Tech and the winless run at the Charleston Classic.
Never miss a local story.
The Bulldogs are yielding 70.1 points per game this season, up from 61.6 last year. Yes, scoring is up in general around the country this season. But it's not up by nine points a game. Georgia is simply playing worse defense, and much of that is due to Caldwell-Pope's absence, whether it be rebounding or perimeter defense. Georgia is giving up 11.4 offensive rebounds per game, up from 10.9 last season. And opponents are getting to the free throw line at a higher rate than Georgia.
Seven games is a small sample size, but it's enough to make head coach Mark Fox worry.
"Everyone since Kentavious left has talked about how are we gonna score, he was our leading scorer, and that's true. He was our best shooter. He was a lot of things," Fox said.
"(But) he was our leading rebounder two years in a row. And so our rebounding woes is partly due to his absence. We're gonna get used to playing without him. But that has probably been a big part of our poor start on the glass, is we lost not only our best player but our leading rebounder. And these other guys are gonna have to pick up the slack there."
Georgia will eventually miss Caldwell-Pope's outside shooting, but they're finding other ways to score. They're only shooting 28 percent from beyond the arc (27-for-95), and there is no consistent lock down 3-point shooter. Forward Nemanja Djurisic has been the team's best 3-point shooter, hitting 9-of-19 attempts. Long-term, sophomore shooting guard Kenny Gaines is the best bet to knock down shots, but he's only 5-for-23 so far this year.
In the meantime, Georgia is benefiting from better inside scoring. The team's field-goal percentage is 47.8, improved from 40.8 last season. And it's getting to the free throw line more than last year (on average 26.2 times per game), but a lot of that has to do with the emphasis in college basketball this year on calling touch fouls.
Leading scorer Charles Mann, the point guard, is getting a lot of his points close to the basket. Cameron Forte, a junior college transfer, and a healthy Marcus Thornton have helped with inside scoring.
But the defense around the basket has been worse. Caldwell-Pope was a lottery pick not just because of his shooting, but his all-around game, especially his defense. The Bulldogs have lacked a formidable center, or even a formidable power forward, for several years. The previous two years Caldwell-Pope was so good he helped overcome some of that.
But not anymore.