ATHENS — Mark Fox believes Georgia has the experience needed to make another move toward the top of the Southeastern Conference.
Georgia returns three starters, including guards Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines, and seven of its top nine players from the team which tied Kentucky for second in the league. Fox said he is opening the season with significant experience for the first time since 2011.
"It certainly made things smoother in practice," Fox said. "We have a lot of guys who know what they're doing."
Senior forward Marcus Thornton is another returning starter from the team which finished 20-14, including 12-6 in the SEC, and lost to Louisiana Tech in the second round of the NIT. Mann (13.9) and Gaines (13.0) are the top returning scorers.
Senior forward Nemanja Djurisic has 25 career starts. Junior forward Cameron Forte made seven starts last season.
Juwan Parker and J.J. Frazier return as backups at guard.
"This is a team that I think can take another step forward," Fox said. "We've got to stay healthy and continue to stay focused.
"A key will be how you handle success and do you stay hungry and driven."
Georgia had its best conference finish since winning the SEC in 1990, but a poor start kept the Bulldogs out of the NCAA tournament.
"We just want to build on what we had last year," Mann said. "It's a new season, so we just have to focus on this year and let last year be in the past."
Here are some things to know about the 2014-15 Georgia team:
WINGING IT: The big question is at small forward. Brandon Morris, who would have been a senior starter, was kicked off the team following his offseason arrest on a marijuana charge. Morris made 45 career starts, and his exit leaves a void at the position. Fox may take advantage of the team's backcourt strength by utilizing three-guard lineups with Mann, Gaines and Parker or Frazier.
FRESHMAN TO WATCH: Forward-center Yante Maten (6-8, 240) could make an immediate impact. Maten, from Pontiac, Michigan, was his state's Gatorade Player of the Year after averaging 19.8 points, 15.2 rebounds and 6.6 blocks as a senior at Bloomfield Hills. Fox said Maten "seems to have had a pretty seamless transition" to college despite adjusting to his first serious work in the weight room.
TOUGH SCHEDULE: Fox said a tougher schedule means the record may not reflect continued improvement by the Bulldogs. After opening at Georgia Tech on Nov. 14 — the earliest meeting between the state rivals — Georgia plays in the NIT Season Tip-Off. The Bulldogs will play Gonzaga and either St. John's or Minnesota in New York in the tournament. The nonconference schedule also includes games against Seton Hall, Colorado and Kansas State.
LEGACY BULLDOG: Forward Houston Kessler (6-8, 225) had a quiet debut as a redshirt freshman last season. He made only one field goal, a 3-pointer, as a little-used backup. He is the son of former Georgia four-year letterman Chad Kessler and the nephew of the late Alec Kessler, Georgia's No. 2 career scorer and a 1990 lottery draft pick by Houston. Fox said Houston Kessler is strong and "has made a real step forward."
SLOW DOWN COACH: Fox said freshman center Osahen Iduwe (6-10, 235), a native of Nigeria, speaks five languages. "I just need him to listen to a sixth," Fox said, referring to Iduwe's dual challenges of learning English and the Georgia playbook. "He hasn't grown up playing the game," Fox said. "He's learning a lot every day and still learning the language. He has asked me to 'Slow down coach, you talk too fast.'"