NASHVILLE - Clearly, this was not the season that the Georgia men's basketball team wanted or anticipated. The Bulldogs' SEC record was actually on par with expectations, but the performance in the non-conference portion was an albatross on the overall record that was too hard to overcome.
Now that it's over, here are five impressions left on this beat writer as he prepares to depart Music City and head back to Athens:
1. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope still isn't fully appreciated. He's the star recruit who panned out. Two years ago he was a McDonalds All-American, and two years later he was SEC player of the year. Let's dispense for a moment with whether he'll return for his junior season and appreciate what he meant this season: He led the Bulldogs in 12 statistical categories (including points, rebounds and steals), accounted for 30 percent of the team's scoring, and did it without playing selfishly. When you're voted player of the year by the coaches despite your team finishing in the middle of the standings, that says how much the coaches feel about you. He might be the best shooter in college basketball that few people know about. That will change next year ... if he returns. Let's put it this way: Caldwell-Pope was as good at basketball this year for Georgia as Jarvis Jones was at football. And Caldwell-Pope's decision to turn pro is more important to the basketball team than Aaron Murray's was to the football team.
2. The rest of the team still needs more talent, but may not be as lacking as originally thought. This year's freshman class was not highly-regarded - Charles Mann, Kenny Gaines and Brandon Morris were all three-star recruits - but it has a chance to be pretty good. Mann made the SEC all-freshman team, and as a 6-foot-4 point guard he gradually learned to use his size as an advantage. Gaines, according to one former coach I spoke to, could eventually develop into an all-SEC type player. And Morris and sophomore Nemi Djurisic, a couple small forward-types, look like pretty good pieces as well.
3. But the problem remains the post players. For two seasons the team has struggled to finish around the basket, and that was on display during one critical sequence Thursday against LSU: A series of unfinished layups and dunks, which could have hastened the team's comeback. So when will the post play get better? There's no easy fix on the horizon. The team hasn't signed a big man for next year, and while one scholarship remains open, and two if Caldwell-Pope leaves, quality big men aren't really out there for the picking this time of the year. The hope for the Bulldogs is that Marcus Thornton, who missed most of the season with chronic knee trouble, can return next year and contribute. They also have to hope Donte' Williams turns around after a befuddling junior year, and sophomores Tim Dixon and John Cannon make strides. If this team just had a serviceable big man, like Jeremy Price two years ago, it might have meant the difference in four or five wins.
4. Something needs to be done to ignite excitement around the program. Georgia averaged 6,198 fans at Stegeman Coliseum this year, second-worst in the SEC and the second-lowest season average for Georgia men's basketball over the past 19 years. Clearly, the team's 2-7 start didn't help. But when the team went on a five-game win streak in SEC play, it returned home to play Alabama and had another sparse crowd. And while attendance has ticked down nationally, even among students, the turnout in Georgia's student section for some games was pretty noticeably lacking. For those pointing simply to wins and losses, recent history only shows small upticks during good seasons at Georgia, and negligible upticks during first years for new coaches. No, it seems there's a cultural issue at Georgia, where many fans just aren't willing to show up for basketball - and it doesn't help recruiting for coaches to bring guys to games and have pretty sparse crowds. It's a vicious cycle for Georgia basketball. Perhaps if Caldwell-Pope announces he's returning, leading to legitimate hope for another NCAA tournament run, that will boost interest in the 2013-14 season. If not, school officials need to think outside the box. Something needs to be done.
5. Mark Fox still has the support of his bosses. When Fox got off the podium for his postgame press conference on Thursday afternoon, he was greeted by athletics director Greg McGarity, who walked with Fox to the locker room, the two talking softly and obviously commiserating over the tough loss. And the tough season. I've said for a long time, dating back to when Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie bolted, that I felt Year 5 (this next one) was the make-or-break year for Fox at Georgia. I'm tempted to amend that now and say he'll have even more rope. McGarity has a high patience level and feels strongly that Fox is doing things the "right way." And McGarity didn't hire Fox, so it's not an issue of pride. This isn't based on any specific on-the-record interviews, but my hunch is McGarity will be looking for improvement next year, and signs of hope in recruiting. As stated earlier, even without Caldwell-Pope there is some talent in the program. The question is whether there's enough.