Wedged into a seat on a commercial flight, Mark Fox’s phone buzzed as the plane rolled down the runway in Atlanta.
The call was coveted. Five-star recruit and in-state prospect Kentavious Caldwell-Pope rang with critical news on a muggy day in July 2010. The nation’s No. 12 prospect wasn’t crossing the Georgia state line, choosing instead to join Fox for his third season in Athens.
Only there was a glitch. A persistent flight attendant badgered Fox to hang up, leaving him only to make a cloying promise to call the 6-foot-5 combo guard back.
And it got worse. Under NCAA rules, the pair had burned their lone contact for the recruiting period — forcing Fox to fidget and wait roughly another week before securing a critical commitment.
“What’s important is certainly to have a guy of that caliber on your team,” Fox said. “He’s just a winner, and having guys like that on your team only attracts more.”
Two seasons into his stint with the Bulldogs, Caldwell-Pope’s potential has been realized: He leads Georgia at 16.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. But finding support has proved elusive as Georgia, still winless in Southeastern Conference play, hosts equally desperate LSU at 7 p.m. Saturday at Stegeman Coliseum.
“He really hasn’t disappointed,” LSU first-year coach Johnny Jones said. “He’s someone we’ll definitely have to contend with and make sure that we try and contain him.”
LSU has the advantage of familiarity with Fox’s system, ingrained from his four seasons as an assistant coach at Nevada alongside Trent Johnson before his boss’ four-year stint in Baton Rouge.
“It will help some of our guys that were here last year and (are) familiar with it,” Jones said. “Guys will know the strong points that they’re looking for.”
Behind Caldwell-Pope, only power forward Nemanja Djurisic (8.1 points per game) is contributing as many as six points on a roster averaging an SEC-worst 55.7. The Bulldogs (6-10, 0-3) rank last in scoring margin (minus-20.3 points) and shot just 38.6 percent in their three conference losses.
In his freshman season, Caldwell-Pope posted 13.2 points and 5.2 rebounds per game and played 32 minutes an outing. But he had Gerald Robinson alongside him, and he averaged 14.2 points to provide a modicum of balance.
Yet there was little doubt the McDonald’s All-American — the first at Georgia since 1992 — shouldered a heap of the Bulldogs’ offensive burden.
“Kentavious was asked to do so much when he arrived on campus,” Fox said. “It’s just so hard as a freshman to be complete when you’re playing major minutes. He was able to gain so much experience that it’s allowed him to improve in just about every area.”
LSU (9-5, 0-3) didn’t need to dig deep into a sheaf of papers or watch much film to discern Caldwell-Pope’s status as Georgia’s only true threat.
“He’s the head of the snake,” junior guard Andre Stringer said. “If we can slow him down a little bit, be physical with him and get him out of his comfort zone, they’ll have to go a different route.”
Fox openly addresses his troubles “finding a consistent second gun” to place alongside Caldwell-Pope, who headlined a 2011 signing class ranked No. 26 by Rivals.com. The rest of that class — Djurisic, centers John Cannon and John Florveus and power forward Tim Dixon — has provided minimal returns. The quartet’s combined 16.6 points per game are fewer than Caldwell-Pope’s production alone.
“He needs some help around him, and that’s one of the struggles of our team,” Fox said.
It’s a telling statement considering the geography of Fox’s program, which is situated in a state that has produced 23 players on Rivals’ Top 150 list in the past three seasons. Only Caldwell-Pope and freshman guard Kenny Gaines, the No. 127 prospect in 2012, inked with the Bulldogs; all of the others went out of state.
In the preseason, Fox was optimistic either Cannon, Florveus, Dixon or Djurisic would emerge as a post threat. Put bluntly, it hasn’t happened, and 26.5 percent of the team’s possessions are routed through the sophomore swingman.
And here’s another startling statistic: Caldwell-Pope, who has hoisted 211 field-goal attempts, takes 32.7 percent of the Bulldogs’ shots — a figure that ranks No. 33 nationally and edges Arkansas’ BJ Young for the SEC lead. Normally, a shot percentage that high is a problem, indicating that a player is a volume scorer and inefficient in getting his points. Yet Caldwell-Pope is shooting 41.7 percent overall (ninth in the SEC) and 33.9 percent from behind the 3-point line (seventh).
“He’s nowhere he can one day be as a player, but he’s a guy who is capable of scoring, rebounding and defending,” Fox said. “He’s starting to play efficiently and more maturely as the year’s gone on.”
Against Mississippi State on Jan. 12, Caldwell-Pope quickly tallied 14 points against a squad forced into a zone to allay foul trouble for a roster with just seven scholarship players. But State was able to concentrate on Caldwell-Pope after halftime: He scored just two points in the second half of the 72-61 loss.
On Wednesday, Vincent Williams, a senior guard, provided 23 points off the bench in a 79-62 loss at No. 17 Missouri, while Caldwell-Pope added 15 on 5-of-12 shooting. Getting similar performances from the rest of the roster could change how teams defend Georgia.
“When you play more man (defense), you can be more man conscious when it comes to Caldwell-Pope,” State coach Rick Ray said. “Our scouting report going into the game was to be more ‘Pope-conscious.’ ”
The Tigers figure to roll out a strategy similar to the one they employed against Florida guard Kenny Boynton last Saturday, switching on screens and rotating the assignment largely between guards Anthony Hickey and Charles Carmouche.
“He’s probably got the height advantage over me and Hickey,” Stringer said. “If coach wants us to guard him, then I think we’ll be fine. Tag him off screens, stand up under him (when) he puts the ball on the floor. We can give him a different look when someone like Carmouche is a lot bigger and stronger.”