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COLLEGE BASKETBALL PREVIEW: Fox still working to make Georgia hoops relevant

Georgia coach Mark Fox, right, welcomes back a talented lineup in his third year in Athens that includes Peach State product Dustin Ware. UGA opens tonight at home.

Georgia coach Mark Fox, right, welcomes back a talented lineup in his third year in Athens that includes Peach State product Dustin Ware. UGA opens tonight at home.

ATHENS — Coach Mark Fox often talks about making Georgia relevant on college basketball’s national landscape.

Last season, Fox’s second in Athens, the Bulldogs took some important steps, earning their first NCAA Tournament appearance in nine years and first Top 25 ranking since 2003.

Georgia finished 21-12 and won seven road games to top its total of the previous three years combined.

“We improved, but we’re not rebuilt completely,” said Fox, whose team opens its 2011-12 season tonight at home against Wofford. “We’ve made progress, but we still have a little ways to go in establishing a culture of being consistently successful.”

Two weeks into fall practice, the Bulldogs still have too many unanswered questions before Fox can favorably compare this team to last year’s.

Early NBA departures of Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie will hurt as Georgia opens the season without four of its top five scorers and absent its four leading rebounders.

Fox is comfortable with his backcourt, led by fourth-year starter Dustin Ware, but Georgia must follow the senior point guard’s lead and improve its turnover margin to compete with Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Florida and Alabama as the top favorites in the SEC.

Shooting guard Gerald Robinson Jr. returns as the leading scorer at 12.2 points per game and is expected to improve his average. Freshman 6-foot-5 swingman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the Bulldogs’ first McDonald’s All-America signee since Carlos Strong in 1992, should give the offense a considerable lift.

The frontcourt is a bigger concern.

Georgia led the SEC in rebounding last season, but Fox doesn’t know if Marcus Thornton, Donte’ Williams, Connor Nolte and junior-college transfer John Florveus can dominate the boards like Thompkins, Leslie, Jeremy Price and Chris Barnes.

Freshmen Nemanja Djurisic, John Cannon and Tim Dixon are competing for minutes, too.

“It’s an inexperienced group of kids, no doubt,” Fox said. “Our guys have a lot to prove, but we’ve had a very productive offseason. There’s a lot of productivity to replace, and it will be interesting to see how it all plays out, but I feel like everyone has made the most of their time together. We can only get better.”

One means of helping the Bulldogs earn high RPI numbers and impress the NCAA Tournament selection committee is the tough schedule Fox draws up each year.

Before the SEC schedule starts, the Bulldogs will visit Xavier, Southern Cal and Colorado, host Cincinnati and rebuilding rival Georgia Tech and face California and either Missouri or Notre Dame on a neutral court in Kansas City.

“I love that we don’t shy away from anybody,” Ware said. “It makes us stronger, not only for the SEC, but for postseason play, too. It will give our young guys a chance to see what it takes to become a winner.”

The SEC schedule offers very few breathers. Even though the league voted in June to disband its two divisions for basketball, UGA still must play twice against powers Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Florida, Tennessee and South Carolina.

Georgia opens SEC play when Alabama visits refurbished Stegeman Coliseum on Jan. 7. The home schedule also includes dates against Mississippi and Arkansas, and the Bulldogs will visit Auburn, LSU and Mississippi State.

“No question it’s one of the best leagues in the nation,” Ware said. “I mean it’s really tough. There are probably three Top 10 teams in the (former) East Division, but we look at it as a great opportunity to make ourselves better.”

One major hurdle was cleared last month when Caldwell-Pope was ruled eligible by the NCAA. The freshman from Greenville was listed along with Bulldogs linebacker Jarvis Jones for allegedly having received improper benefits from an AAU team in Columbus, but both players were cleared of wrongdoing.

“Kentavious has come in with a great attitude,” Ware said. “He’s got the skills to be a good player, but what’s important for our team is that he listens and does what he’s asked to do.”

That’s the approach Fox believes his entire team adopted with its offseason conditioning and workouts. Without Thompkins and Leslie, who were both second-round draft picks by the Los Angeles Clippers, the 42-year-old Fox knows Georgia still has plenty of work to do.

The good news? The Bulldogs are putting in the hours, and are close as they’ve been in years.