- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
ATHENS, Ga. -- Mark Fox doesn’t know for sure how his reconstructed team will fare against an expanded SEC schedule, but Georgia’s basketball coach thinks this will be the deepest and most athletic Bulldogs team he has fielded.
The Bulldogs lost starting guards Gerald Robinson and Dustin Ware from last season’s 15-17 club, but the roster of key contributors otherwise remains intact plus three freshmen -- point guard Charles Mann, shooting guard Kenny Gaines and small forward Brandon Morris -- who will play key roles this season.
“We have more pieces this year,” Fox said at Tuesday’s season-opening press conference. “We’re a deeper basketball team, we’re more athletic than we were, we’re a more physical group, certainly a more experienced group than we were last year. We are 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.
“We just have more guys that I think are ready for SEC play and I think we’re a little bit longer, we’ll be a bit bigger in the backcourt, we’re more physical up front.”
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, an SEC All-Freshman recipient last season, returns along with forwards Donte Williams, Marcus Thornton and Nemanja Djurisic in the frontcourt. Adding those pieces with the trio of athletic freshmen will inject new energy into the lineup, Djurisic said.
“It’s going to help us rebounding, it’s going to help us run the offense, it’s going to help us on fast breaks,” Djurisic said. “It’s going to help us in many ways.”
That depth will come in handy with a lengthened conference schedule that adds SEC newcomers Missouri and Texas A&M, forcing teams to play two league games per week for nine straight weeks.
“It’s going to be a slugfest,” Fox said. “I think having some depth and staying healthy is going to be critical to all those teams having success. Hopefully we can be in that mix.”
Leadership responsibilities: Robinson and Ware were the most experienced players on Georgia’s roster last season, but the quiet seniors were not natural-born leaders, Fox said.
Georgia’s coach said he has been pleased with the way some of his returning players are trying to take up the leadership mantel prior to the season.
“I love Dustin and Gerald, but I’m not sure either one of them were great leaders,” Fox said. “They were terrific players and both kind of quiet kids -- and not that all leaders have to have a big mouth, but leadership is an area that we need to fill.
“…When leadership is required, it should emerge and I think we saw in our foreign trip some guys that are certainly willing to take the reins of our team and point it in the right direction. Sherrard Brantley was terrific in the offseason, Kentavious Caldwell, Neme Djurisic. All those guys had some great moments in leadership in the offseason, and it’s going to take everybody.”
Just a sophomore, Djurisic said he believes that is one of his responsibilities as one of the team’s most experienced returning players.
“Of course I have a little bit of a role as a leader, as someone who’s going to teach the young guys what to expect,” he said. “I feel kind of obligated to do that job, too.”
Stronger SEC: Missouri and Texas A&M’s addition to the SEC generated the most national discussion for what it means in football. That might take years to assess accurately.
Fox believes the two newcomers will make an immediate impact in his sport.
“They’ll just enhance the basketball in this league,” Fox said. “This is a league where I think there’s at least seven teams at the end of the year that will be playing in the postseason.”
Fox said a non-conference schedule that includes games against Indiana and either UCLA or Georgetown in Brooklyn, N.Y., a visit to Georgia Tech and home dates against USC, George Washington and Southern Miss will provide a solid test before jumping into the Bulldogs’ SEC slate.
“You don’t sharpen your teeth by eating bread pudding every night,” Fox said. “You’ve got to put meat in your schedule, and we feel like we’ve done that and we’re going to have to learn how to play at a high level very early.”
Thornton’s back: Thornton did not compete during the Bulldogs’ summer tour of Italy following offseason knee surgery, but Fox anticipates him being ready for the start of the season -- even if he plans to take it easy on the veteran forward.
“He will probably get frustrated with me because I’m going to make sure that we proceed very slowly with him,” Fox said. “He’s going to be cleared to practice, he’ll be ready to play, he’s looked very good in our workouts, but he’s also a young man who’s had two knee surgeries and he’s [lost] some tread on those tires and we need to make sure that we keep him fresh and rested. So there will be days that even when he’s healthy, I may sit him on the side just to make sure that he continues to stay healthy.”
Rome’s return: Fox said he still intends to use Jay Rome -- a tight end on Georgia’s football team -- as a walk-on forward once football season ends, as long as Rome upholds his end of the bargain.
Rome appeared in seven games last season and averaged one rebound and 0.4 points per game.
“I think Jay would like to play again,” Fox said. “He obviously has to stay healthy and be OK in the classroom and everything else, but the plan is for him to continue to play. But we realize that that won’t be until January, so we’ll wait patiently because he was certainly a big part of our team.”
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