ATHENS — Coach Mark Fox has a long list of reasons his Georgia team should be better this season.
“We have more pieces this year,” Fox said. “We’re a deeper basketball team. We’re more athletic than we were, we’re a more physical group and certainly a more experienced group than last year.”
Georgia, which made its first NCAA tournament appearance in nine years in 2011, fell back to 15-17 last season.
Four starters return: guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and forwards Marcus Thornton, Donte Williams and Nemanja Djurisic.
Caldwell-Pope, who averaged 13.2 points per game as a freshman last season, will be the focus of opposing defenses. The 6-foot-5 sophomore said he’ll have more help from the deeper roster.
“I think the team is ready to make a move up,” Caldwell-Pope said. “We have more athleticism than last year. We have a great group of guys who are willing to work hard and compete. Everyone wants to win.”
Fox took the team on a 10-day trip to Italy in August that included three exhibition games. It was Georgia’s first team trip overseas since 2004.
Caldwell-Pope, a natural shooting guard who can play small forward, played point guard on the trip as Fox sought to expand the sophomore’s skills.
“He had a very good freshman year in many ways, but there is so much more room for improvement with him and I think he understands that,” Fox said. “He’s going to have to shoot a higher percentage. He’s going to have to become a more efficient scorer.
“I think he’ll certainly be an improved player this year, a more physical player. We played him some at the p on our foreign trip so I think he’s a better ball-handler and more poised in the backcourt, so hopefully you’ll see those improvements from him.”
Freshmen Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines and Brandon Morris could play significant roles.
Mann is competing with senior Vincent Williams for the starting job at point guard. Gaines, a Parade magazine All-America pick from Whitefield Academy, is a shooting guard. Morris is a 6-foot-7 forward.
“We have more pieces this year,” said an optimistic Fox.
“I think we have great competition for playing time on this team, and that’s something we’ve never had since I came here.”
Fox said any of the three freshmen could compete for a starting job “if they’ll play to their ability and do what they’re told.”
“I’ve had a lot of freshmen in my career who have started for me,” Fox said. “They would have to earn that, and they’ve got some guys ahead of them that don’t want to be beat out. It will be fun to watch.”
The two most prominent players Fox must replace are starting point guard Gerald Robinson and backup guard Dustin Ware. Robinson led the team with his 14.2 points per game. Ware was a 3-point shooter who averaged 8.1 points.
This year’s backcourt should be bigger.
“We’re going to miss the experience of Gerald Robinson and Dustin Ware in the backcourt, but that’s really the only key pieces we lost off last year’s team,” Fox said. “We just have more guys who I think are ready for SEC play. I think we’re a little bit longer, we’ll be a little bit bigger in the backcourt. We’re more physical up front with an offseason in the weight room and just natural maturity.”
Other returning players on the front line include 6-foot-11 senior center John Florveus and two sophomores, John Cannon and Tim Dixon. Junior Sharrard Brantley is another option in the backcourt.
Fox, starting his fourth season, said this is his first Georgia team where all the players are his recruits.
“We have some new faces and unlike last year we return a lot of production,” he said at the start of practice.
This is a group I’m looking forward to coaching. It’s a group I think still has a very young flavor to it, but we do return quite a bit of production from last year. And so I anticipate we will be a team that continues to improve throughout the year but we will be a team that has certainly a much greater understanding of what’s required to win when the season begins.”
Georgia plays an exhibition against Young Harris on Friday before opening its season on Nov. 9 against Jacksonville.