March 13, 2013

Dawgs still confident

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope says Georgia's goals for the SEC Tournament that starts Thursday in Nashville is really quite simple.

"Really, we just plan to win," Caldwell-Pope said Wednesday at Bridgestone Arena. "We just come here with our mindset that we going to win the next game and we've got to keep that mindset and stay focused and do that."

Sophomore Nemanja Djurisic agreed.

Although it's been a season chock full of ups and downs for the Bulldogs (15-16), Djurisic said it's also been one where the team has grown to the point it now expects success every time it steps on the court.

"I mean that's how we worked throughout the whole season," he said. "That's how we found success, focusing on the next game and enjoying playing each other and enjoying the week. That's the most important thing."

First up for the Bulldogs is LSU (18-11), which Georgia beat 67-58 for its first SEC win back in January.

Tipoff is set for 1 p.m. (SEC Network). The winner will play Florida Friday, also at 1 p.m.

Head coach Mark Fox concedes it's been an interesting ride.

"I think that when we were 2-7, we went into the season knowing that we were going to have freshmen and sophomores play major roles, and two of those games we lost in overtime and we just weren't good enough, we weren't playing well enough and we just, you know - I think we have trusted in the process," Fox said. "At 1-4 there was no panic because we played the Gators twice and played at Missouri and had the toughest part of our schedule. So I think our team trusts in our coaching staff. We've got really good young people who we believed would stay the course and really all we've done is that, just kept plugging along and stayed fully vested in the process."

Through it all, Caldwell-Pope carried much of the load.

The sophomore followed up an outstanding freshman year with an even better sophomore campaign, averaging 18 points per game en route to being voted SEC Player of the Year by the league coaches.

"We just came together and started playing hard," Caldwell-Pope said. "That really turned things around for us. We just kept doing each game. We finished a lot of games, but right now we just got to continue to stay focused, keep believing in each other and keep moving forward."

But it wasn't until the Bulldogs started getting some offensive contributions from other sources, including Djurisic and freshman Charles Mann that the Bulldogs started to change for the better.

."I think we found the ways to score on the offense, find ways to play with each other best we can. I think we learned how to play hard," Djurisic said. "I think a lot of young guys contributed a lot late in the season, and I think just the experience that we all gained from the season kind of came in late and we started playing better and I think we're a really good team."

But Fox is quick to acknowledge that the season was a growing process for everyone involved.

"Kentavious and Nemanja were two of the problems early in the year. Those guys did not play well. They did not play well in November. They didn't finish plays in a percentage that we wanted them to," he said. "So, you know, I think the issue for us early were those guys weren't playing well offensively and our new guys, they weren't playing defensively, and really all that we've done is get those guys back to a level offensively that's been consistent and then our new players and our young players have all improved."

But can the Bulldogs make the kind of run it will need to shock the league and win the SEC Tournament crown?

LSU coach Johnny Jones isn't counting anybody out, even with this year's new format thanks to the league expanding to 14 teams to include Missouri and Texas A&M.

"I think when you talk about a conference of this magnitude and the challenges and the parity that it presents and teams play extremely well, I think you can look back only, I guess a few years ago, when Georgia who was possibly in last place and had no chance getting into the NCAA Tournament outside of winning the conference tournament," he said. "That's the great thing about college basketball is all about the student athletes and the experience that they gain during that time there and you don't want to ever put them in a situation that they're not included."

Despite their recent loss at Alabama on a last-second half-court shot, the Bulldogs are playing about as good as anyone in the league, having gone 8-5 since dropping a 64-47 home decision at Florida on Jan. 23.

"Well, I think we've either won or had the games decided in the final, you know, possession or two. So I think that we feel like we've played pretty consistent," Fox said. "I think our team has a confidence level that when they play the game the right way that they'll have chances to win, and so the fact that we've been able to do that for, you know, several weeks, I think gives these guys some confidence going into the tournament."