ATLANTA — There was a moment in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s evening when he was left wide open at the top of the arc, daylight stretching out all around him, right before he clanged the basketball off the rim.
There were 18 seconds left, but the game was now over.
In the aftermath of the disappointing release that solidified Georgia’s 62-54 loss to in-state rival Georgia Tech Tuesday night, Caldwell-Pope, the sophomore who at times looks like the only noteworthy player in a Bulldogs basketball uniform this season, scrambled after the loose rebound. He didn’t grab it. Instead, he came up with his fourth foul.
That was the night for Georgia. In many ways it’s been the season: Put the ball in Caldwell-Pope’s hands and hope for the best. Only eight other players nationally have taken a higher percentage of their team’s shots this season — he hoisted 18 of the team’s 57 field goals versus the Yellow Jackets.
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It’s still early in the season, but that strategy has only led to two wins thus far.
Tuesday night in Georgia Tech’s sparkling new McCamish Pavilion — fans were still wandering around during the first half, checking out all the new amenities — might have represented a turning point for this rivalry, with two teams looking like they are heading in opposite directions. Coach Brian Gregory has the Yellow Jackets (5-2) pointed upwards, while Georgia’s Mark Fox is still searching for the answers that he found in his program’s 2010-11 run to the NCAA Tournament.
Based on available evidence this season, Caldwell-Pope will not be able to single-handedly carry them there.
Though he leads the team in points, rebounds, steals and 3-point shooting, the Bulldogs (2-6) are already off to their worst start in more than a decade. The 6-foot-5 guard finished with 16 points (5-of-18 shooting) and 13 rebounds; he was the only Bulldog to reach double figures in either statistical category.
“I thought Kentavious started the game very emotionally,” Fox said. “I don’t think we got him calmed down until halfway through the first half. I just thought he was wound up and therefore took a couple of shots that show his inexperience as a player. The game hasn’t totally slowed down for him yet.
“We do need him to score.”
No questions there — Georgia ranks 182nd nationally in offensive efficiency.
It comes as no surprise that Fox has had to lean on his best player, especially offensively, given his roster, but at certain points it has proven to be too much. Caldwell-Pope has improved across the board since his freshman year — he’s rebounding at a more efficient rate, he has a higher true shooting percentage (50.6 percent) and is getting to the free throw line much more consistently — but he still has holes in his game. He’s still figuring out concepts such as “shot selection” and “ball security.” He’s not a world-beater or future NBA All-Pro.
Still, through eight games, KCP has been utilized on 30.7 percent of Georgia’s possessions, the highest rate of any player in the SEC.
“Our scoring has worried me for quite some time,” Fox said. “We’re not scoring the ball at an efficient enough rate to win. … We need some guys to finish plays and that’s a real thorn in our side at the present time.”
Caldwell-Pope personifies the predicament Fox has found himself in: His lone in-state recruiting coup is shouldering the load of his underwhelming team. The former five-star recruit out of Greenville, Ga., is, at all times, Georgia’s most talented (and sometimes most productive) player on the floor.
“He’s a winner. He’s really growing as a player; he plays his heart out,” Fox said. “He’s still a little sped up at times, but I can’t ask for much more out of him.”
Fox could certainly use a few more like KCP. As strong as he has proven himself to be in player development, one glance across the roster says it all about the Bulldogs’ talent deficiency. Just look across the scorer’s table at Gregory’s group.
Though just in his second season in Atlanta, the second-year Georgia Tech coach is already working with a superior corps of players. It all comes down to recruiting, too, especially in college basketball where one class can turn a program around. According to Scout’s rankings, the Yellow Jackets have signed seven four- or five-star players over the past four years, all but one of which went to high school in Georgia, and the difference showed Tuesday with performances from freshman Marcus Georges-Hunt (18 points, six rebounds) and senior Mfon Udofia (12 points).
For comparison, Fox has only signed one such recruit.
That guy leads the team in, well, nearly everything.
One of the main things a top-level college coach in the state of Georgia must do is keep the state’s best talent home. That’s easier written than done, but at this point, it appears Georgia Tech is following that route much more directly.
And with their eight-point win that could have been much worse, the Yellow Jackets have now won back-to-back games in the rivalry for the first time since winning three straight from 1992-94. That’s not a coincidence. When it comes to coaching, facilities or financial support, both programs appear to toe similar lines. The difference is players: Gregory has more than Fox right now; he even reminded anyone listening in the postgame press conference about it.
“We’re starting to see Mfon Udofia grow into a leader,” Gregory said. “He is becoming the kind of leader that doesn’t come along all that often.”
Two seasons ago, it looked like Fox would be able to ride the wave of a tourney team led by future NBA draft picks Travis Leslie and Trey Thompkins into some of the best years Georgia basketball had ever seen. Stegeman Coliseum was freshly renovated and the team was taking out the likes of Kentucky and Tennessee. Now, with just one McDonald’s All-American to show for his efforts, Fox’s squad is losing to the likes of Youngstown State and looks a long ways away from postseason play.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has many talents, but carrying Georgia to respectability does not appear to be within range at the moment.