Mark Fox heads into his fifth year of trying to make men's basketball relevant at Georgia.
He might be facing his toughest test yet.
The Bulldogs are coming off their third losing season in Fox's tenure, struggling to a 15-17 mark and making this a potentially crucial year in determining his long-term future at the Southeastern Conference school where football rules.
Improving on that record will be difficult after Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who accounted for nearly a third of the team's scoring, left early for the NBA.
Caldwell-Pope averaged 18.5 points a game. No other returning player scored more than 7.9.
Still, Fox is optimistic about replacing his top scorer, though it certainly won't be with a single player.
"We finally have a level of experience and physicality and a full complement of players," he said. "We have a deeper team this year. We finally return players this year at every position who have played significant minutes. So I see in practice a team that's a little more comfortable, and hopefully that will work to our advantage."
Sophomore Kenny Gaines is expected to pick up a big chunk of the scoring load after playing well down the stretch.
But even if Caldwell-Pope had returned, Fox was counting on the Bulldogs being a more balanced team.
"It has to be a lot of guys," the coach said. "We can't say "Hey, Kenny, go get 20 a night" because that's not fair. So we'll need to replace him by committee. "
Several players, including oft-injured Marcus Thornton, are looking forward to a chance to shine.
"We all know Kentavious was an outstanding player, a great teammate and a great leader," Thornton said. "But we feel like everybody will learn from him and take things from him and grow as a group and as individuals. The strength in our team will probably lie in our depth and versatility. That's where I think we'll be able to take advantage and win some matchups."
In addition to figuring out how to replace Kentavious Caldwell-Pope's scoring, here are five things to know about the Georgia Bulldogs:
FOX'S FUTURE: The Bulldogs are just 65-63 under Fox, with one trip to the NCAA tournament and a 28-38 mark in conference play. This is Year 5 of his tenure at a school that has never shown a long leash with its basketball coaches. Ron Jirsa lasted only two years before he was dumped in the 1990s. Fox's predecessor, Dennis Felton, didn't make it through his fifth year, getting his walking papers midway through the 2008-09 season.
THORNTON'S DURABILITY: The fourth-year junior was one of the top high school players in the state. But multiple knee injuries have prevented Thornton from reaching his potential with the Bulldogs. He wound up being redshirted last season for medical reasons, and this season will be a crucial test in determining if he'll be of any help before his college career is over.
WHERE'S WILLIAMS?: Senior forward Donte Williams showed signs of being a solid contributor when he started every game as a sophomore, averaging 7.8 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. But instead of continuing his improvement, Williams took a big step backward as a junior. His scoring average dipped to 5.1, his rebounding fell to 4.8. The Bulldogs need him to get back on an upward trend.
FRESHMAN CLASS: Georgia's recruiting class hardly ranked among the nation's best, but there's a couple of players who might provide some help. J.J. Frazier, only 5-foot-10 and 150 pounds, could bring quickness to the point guard position in spurts. Juwan Parker is a 6-4 wing player from Oklahoma with a good shooting touch. But preferred walk-on Dusan Langura won't play this season after a bomb blast during a required military stint in his native Switzerland left him with a serious knee injury, costing the Bulldogs another potential shooter off the bench.
EARLY SCHEDULE: While the pre-SEC schedule is filled with the predictable patsies, there's a few games that might give a telling indication of how good this team will be. The Bulldogs travel to Georgia Tech on Nov. 15, face Davidson and either Clemson or Temple in the Charleston Classic in late November, and close their non-conference slate with road games at Colorado and George Washington.
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