ATHENS – From the inevitable bolting of Louis Williams to the NBA to the tragic death ofguard Kevin Brophy, it seemed for almost five years that every time Georgia’s basketball teamwas in the news, the news was bad.
There have been plenty of momentum-breaking moments for the Bulldogs – don’t forget thatMemphis standout Robert Dozier was a signee until academics intervened or that the team’s twoleading scorers were dismissed prior to this season. Now, despite a quick exit from the NCAATournament, Georgia may have something on which to build.
“You talk about things that are negative, but maybe they were necessary for us to kind ofmove forward,” center Dave Bliss said.
Bliss’ career, and that of fellow senior Sundiata Gaines, ended Thursday in Washington, D.C.,with a 73-61 loss to Xavier in the first round of the West Regional. Both will be missed,particularly Gaines, but there still is plenty of optimism for the returning players.
“It’s huge now that we know what it takes to get here,” freshman point guard Zac Swansey saidafter Thursday’s loss. “I think every one of these guys realizes what it takes to win andcompete and be a champion at this level. I have high expectations, as I’m sure everybody does,for this team next year.”
One week ago, no one would have been talking like that, but a miracle run to the SECTournament championship overshadowed the fact the Georgia won only four conference games inthe regular season and finished the year 17-17.
“We made history,” freshman forward Jeremy Price said. “We came over a big hump. Nobodythought we could get this far. We’ll bounce back and get ready for next year.”
Those four days in Atlanta, two in the Georgia Dome and two in the Georgia Tech’s AlexanderMemorial Coliseum, probably saved head coach Dennis Felton’s job. The SEC Tournament title wasjust the third conference title in school history.
“Obviously, this is another major step forward for us,” Felton said. “To win the championshipwe had to develop the stock of champions. That’s what happened in Atlanta so that experiencewill be valuable for us in moving forward. It makes it more conducive for all us to go intonext season having experienced this. It’s a shot in the arm, there’s no doubt about that.”
Georgia will have to go forward without Gaines, perhaps the most indispensable Bulldog of thedecade, and Bliss, a stalwart in the post. In their place, it will add forwards Howard “Trey”Thompkins, wing Drazen Zlovaric and point guard Dustin Ware.
Thompkins is rated the No. 7 power forward in the country by Scout.com and led GwinnettCounty in scoring this year, averaging more than 30 points per game at Wesleyan High School. Georgia’s week in the spotlight should help it draw more elite recruits like Thompkins in thefuture, several players said.
“In any program you are going to need a positive aspect if you’re going to start recruitingbig-time players,” junior Corey Butler said. “When you look at a team like Georgia, we weren’tseen on a national scale like the Dukes and the North Carolinas, but you look at us now, andpeople are like, ‘Hey, they play basketball at Georgia.’”