ATHENS — The Georgia Bulldogs return to the court as champions.
Now, they’ve got to show it wasn’t a fluke.
Coming off a perfect storm in the Southeastern Conference tournament, Georgia opens practice today with a young, inexperienced squad that must replace several key players from its improbable run to the NCAAs last March.
“There’s some people who believe now,” guard Zac Swansey said. “But others say it was only one weekend, and you can’t really judge a team on one weekend. We’ve got whole year prove those people wrong.”
Last season, the Bulldogs finished at the bottom of the SEC East with a 4-12 mark, leading to plenty of speculation about coach Dennis Felton’s future. But everything changed during a stormy weekend in Atlanta.
Georgia won its opening-round game and was waiting to play mighty Kentucky when a tornado ripped through downtown Atlanta, glancing off the Georgia Dome. The game was postponed because of damage to the arena, and the tournament shifted on the spur of the moment to nearby Georgia Tech.
Forced to play a doubleheader the following day, the Bulldogs beat Kentucky in the tournament for the first time ever, and came back six hours later to knock off SEC West champion Mississippi State.
Finally, they defeated Arkansas in the title game, earning an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Even though the season lasted only one more game — a loss to Xavier in the opening round — the whole perception of Georgia’s program took a turn for the better.
“This being an election year, all you hear about these days is exciting the base,” Felton said. “The SEC championship certainly had a huge impact on that.”
Especially the way the Bulldogs did it, winning four games in three days.
“It just grabbed everyone’s attention,” Felton continued. “Everywhere I go, from coast to coast, I’m much more recognized than ever before. That was really affected by the SEC championship. There were all sorts of people pulling hard for us. It was just one of those special times.”
Now, back to reality.
The Bulldogs have only two returning starters. Sundiata Gaines and Dave Bliss completed their eligibility, while Billy Humphrey was kicked off the team after several run-ins with law enforcement. Together, that trio accounted for nearly 35 points a game last season, including Gaines’ team-high average of 14.8.
The Bulldogs are left with a roster that includes only two seniors and one junior. Everyone else is a freshman or sophomore.
But Felton expects to have a more athletic, versatile squad, led by returning starters Terrance Woodbury (11 points a game) and Albert Jackson (3.7).
Jackson, a 6-foot-10 junior, has made great strides since arriving at Georgia, and Felton is counting on him to make another big leap forward.
“Albert had built off the momentum from his performance later in the year,” Felton said. “He’s going at things with more confidence and aggression than he ever has before.”
Sophomores Swansey, Jeremy Price, Chris Barnes and Troy Brewer gained valuable experience off the bench last season, with Swansey coming up huge in the SEC tournament. Trey Thompkins, a 6-8 forward who can score inside and out, figures to be the top freshman contributor. He was the top scorer and rebounder at national power Oak Hill as a high school junior, and led Wesleyan to a state title last season.
“The team is going to change dramatically,” Felton said. “But I’m excited by the talent, I’m excited by the pieces we have. They give us a complete kind of team. They give us the versatile kind of team. Whenever you’re relying on freshmen and sophomores, there’s going to be a lot of inexperience. But this team has potential to grow.”
Injuries are a concern.
Thompkins sprained his knee in a pickup game three weeks ago and will miss the start of practice. Price has ankle surgery over the summer, and Barnes had to take time off when an old wrist injury flared up.
At least they should be ready to go when the season begins Nov. 14 against USC-Upstate. Freshman guard Ebuka Anayorah will take a redshirt after sustaining a stress fracture in his leg. Rest didn’t help, so he underwent surgery this week to have a rod inserted.
Still, there’s a lot more optimism in Athens these days — and no talk about who the next coach is going to be.
“You hate to think about your coach possibly not being there the next year,” Jackson said. “I think Coach Felton is a little more relaxed, a little more confident. He can really put his coaching style into action now. He has the confidence of the athletic director and everybody at UGA.”