Last season Caldwell-Pope averaged more than 13 points a game, but he will be the focal point of defenses the entire season this year, and that will present a new challenge for the former McDonald’s All-American.
Georgia returns four players with starting experience from its 2012 team – none with a higher profile than Caldwell-Pope – but face a grueling pre-conference schedule that will be a leading indicator of what they will be able to do the rest of the year.
Georgia will have to play well at the start of the season in order to avoid back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 2009. The Bulldogs face three 2012 NCAA Tournament programs in the first four games of the season – Southern Miss, Indiana and UCLA or Georgetown (during in a November tournament in Brooklyn, NY).
A trip to Tampa to play Big East foe South Florida falls on the last day of November while the annual fight with Georgia Tech tips the first week of December. Two more home dates before SEC play – against Southern Cal and George Washington – will almost certainly provide fourth-year coach Mark Fox enough knowledge about his team going into the conference season.
The good news is that Caldwell-Pope, specifically, won’t have to learn Georgia’s triangle offense. The sophomore said it took him some time to get used to the famous offense last winter.
“I got the hang of it after a while,” he said.
Caldwell-Pope knows how important his play, particularly offensive production, is to the Bulldogs’ season, and he says he’s prepared for that.
“I’m more calm than I was,” the former Greenville star admits. “I’ve grown a lot; I’ve matured a lot. There was pressure last year for me, as a young kid, to step onto this big stage. I really was a little scared. But I talked with my teammates and coaches, and they helped me get comfortable.”
Caldwell-Pope said he didn’t consider moving on to the NBA before deciding otherwise, saying: “I knew I wasn’t ready.”
Perhaps the best indication of that came during last year’s Kentucky game in Athens. The floor was full of Wildcats who would soon pour into the NBA ranks. Kentucky took advantage of their lopsided talent advantage by harassing, annoying and slowing Caldwell-Pope down. The talented freshman ended the night with only seven points scored during 36 minutes of playing time.
It wasn’t a fair fight, but it was an indicator on what life would be like in the NBA.
Kentucky won the game 57-44 on the way to the Cats’ first national title since 1998. The game was a microcosm of the first part of Georgia’s SEC season… the Bulldogs struggled to score, and it was a real problem – it was the reason they were losing.
Georgia only scored more than 60 points in three of its first seven games and limped to a 1-7 start to the SEC season.
If the Bulldogs want to escape the same fate they will need to get Caldwell-Pope and the rest of the five on the floor going offensively. Georgia did turn around its play last winter, but only after Caldwell-Pope wasn’t the sole scorer on the team. During the last ten games of the season, which the Bulldogs split 5-5, Caldwell-Pope only led the team in scoring twice (home wins over Arkansas and Florida).
The focus wasn’t Caldwell-Pope, and the Bulldogs played better because of it. But it’s difficult to know how Georgia will replace the explosive offensive production of Gerald Robinson or the critical shooting touch of Dustin Ware. It seems clear Fox recruited true freshmen Kenny Gaines and Charles Mann for that specific purpose, but they are unknown commodities in the world of SEC basketball.
What’s also difficult to judge are the expectations coming into Fox’s fourth year. Fox injected much needed confidence in a program, which had been suffering in mediocrity for the better part of a decade. But under Fox, the Bulldogs have ended the year with two losing records two out of three years. The program remains without a NCAA Tournament win since 2002. Recruiting remains a challenge for the program, but signing Caldwell-Pope was a significant bright spot in an otherwise non-descript four years in recruiting.
If nothing else the Bulldogs have a tough pre-SEC schedule, which will prepare them for the rigors of conference play. It remains to be seen if they will be able to claw their way into post-season play, but that would be a major step forward for a program, which has struggled for going on a decade.