ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — With the Southeastern Conference tournament foremost in his mind, Georgia’sKentavious Caldwell-Pope says his thoughts are not on turning pro.
At least not right now.
Caldwell-Pope, named by league coaches this week as the SEC player of the year, could play his final college game on Thursday if the Bulldogs (15-16) lose to LSU (18-11) in the second round of tournament.
“I’m not really trying to worry about that right now,” the soft-spoken Caldwell-Pope said. “We’ve got the SEC tournament to worry about, and I’ve just got that on my mind right now.”
But Caldwell-Pope says Georgia still believes it can win a couple of games and make the NIT field. He also won’t rule out winning the SEC tournament in Nashville, Tenn., to earn the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Even if the Bulldogs fall short this week, Caldwell-Pope plans to consider that they could contend for an NCAA bid next season if he returns for his junior year.
“I kind of do because we do have a great team,” he said. “We did improve faster than I thought we would. Every day we get better.”
Whether Caldwell-Pope returns will likely depend on how high he could get drafted. He was listed as the 31st-best prospect this week by ESPN, 32nd by NBAdraft.net and No. 41st by draftexpress.com.
Even at No. 31, Caldwell-Pope still would fall into the second round, a placement that hardly helped the last two Bulldogs to leave school early. Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie were both drafted in the second round of 2011 by the Los Angeles Clippers, and neither has enjoyed a prosperous career.
“This is Kentavious’ life and career we’re talking about, so I take that very seriously, and I’ll make sure that Kentavious has accurate information from the right sources,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “We have had conversations about this for the last year. We’ll discuss things at the right time. It’s not something that has to be done any time soon, and he’s aware of that and is just trying to play basketball.”
Without Caldwell-Pope, Georgia might have been hard pressed to finish 9-9 in the SEC and earn the tournament’s eighth seed.
His 18.0 scoring average didn’t just rank second in the league — it also accounted for 30 percent of the Bulldogs’ offense.
Yet despite coaching a team that ranked 307th nationally in scoring, Fox stopped of short of saying that Caldwell-Pope, who was second in the SEC in minutes played, is irreplaceable.
“He’s an important part of our team, but he’d be the first one to tell you he’s not the only part of our team,” Fox said. “At a very young age, as a sophomore, he had to be a good example and a leader, and that’s important because of the many young players we have here. He’s been a critical part of our team.”
Nemanja Djurisic finished second in scoring with an 8.1 average. Donte’ Williams was the second-best rebounder at 4.9, an average of two rebounds less per game than Caldwell-Pope.
Even without lots of production from other players, the Bulldogs managed to overcome a 2-7 start to win 13 of their next 22 games.
They will face LSU having won just three of their last eight games, but those five losses were by an average of just 4.6 points.
“We just managed to be as competitive as we can and have a great effort in every game and focus mentally on all the scouting reports and the game in front of us,” Djurisic said. “I think we experienced more and we learned how to deal with adversity. We learned how to play hard, and I think that was the biggest factor lately.”
If he returns, Caldwell-Pope said that Georgia should be better next year. He’s one of nine underclassmen on a roster of 14 players.
And with a more promising team returning, maybe the Bulldogs can improve the atmosphere at Stegeman Coliseum, which ranked next to last in the SEC with an average of 6,198 fans.
But Caldwell-Pope says factors off the basketball floor did not affect Georgia’s effort.
“Our confidence has always been there,” he said. “We’re a hard-fighting team. We’re not going to quit, and we’re always going to fight back. We just have to continue to do that throughout the SEC tournament.”
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.