By Dean Legge
After two years of progress Mark Fox's Georgia Bulldogs have a challenge on their hands in 2011-12 if they want to return to the NCAA tournament for the third time in five years.
Expectations for the Bulldogs have cooled a bit after two of their star players from last season, Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie, were drafted in the second round of the NBA Draft. That duo averaged more than 30 points and 10 rebounds a contest last season. They will be missed.
The departure of those two as well as solid frontcourt players Chris Barnes and Jeremy Price means the Bulldogs will likely be a smaller, faster bunch this coming winter.
The attack will be led by two rising senior guards, Dustin Ware and Gerald Robinson. Robinson, who played point guard most of the time, had moments which were both magical and unsteady – sometimes in the same game. Ware's improvement under Fox has been noticeable. He climbed to fourth in the SEC in three-point shooting by the end of last year.
Top newcomer Kentavious Caldwell-Pope could be the best player on the team right away. Caldwell-Pope is the first McDonald's All-American to sign with the Bulldogs in almost 20 years. He will be the most likely player to replace Thompkins' game-to-game production.
Marcus Thornton, Connor Nolte and Donte Williams will all fight for a spot on the floor opposite the player who wins the center job. That also remains a mystery coming into the season. Newcomer John Florveus is the favorite to start at center because of his length, but true freshmen John Cannon and Tim Dixon could also play a role inside.
Shooter Sherrard Brantley and guard Vincent Williams give opposing coaches something to ponder from the Bulldogs' bench.
The SEC's elimination of two-division play doesn't do much to help the Bulldogs in terms of scheduling. Georgia will still play likely top 10 teams Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Florida twice in 2012. The Bulldogs will also play Tennessee and lowly South Carolina twice. Divisions may be gone, but the scheduling remains the same. Wins will be hard to come by for the Bulldogs in the old SEC East. The West, however, should provide more manageable navigation for Fox and company. Arkansas, Alabama and Ole Miss both come to Athens. The Bulldogs must travel to Mississippi State, but road wins over LSU and Auburn seem very possible.
The pre-conference slate is a bit challenging, but the Bulldogs should enter SEC with a solid record if they win all of their home games in November and December. Critical home dates with Cincinnati and Georgia Tech will determine just how good the Bulldogs are heading into SEC play.
Road games at Southern Cal, Xavier and Colorado will be difficult tests for Fox and his relatively inexperienced club. Georgia will travel to Kansas City to play in the Progressive CBE Classic the week of Thanksgiving. The Bulldogs will play California and then either Missouri or Notre Dame the next night. An early-season win over the Bears, Tigers or Irish would likely jump expectations.
Fox has shown that he has the ability to win with NBA-level talent on his roster. Caldwell-Pope certainly is that caliber of player, but he's young. The Bulldogs will have to rely on steady play from their frontcourt and a quick learning curve from their newcomers if they want a return trip to the NCAAs, which is not out of the question – just not expected.