ATHENS — Georgia’s trophy case is rather bare when it comes to men’s basketball.
Over 75 years, the Bulldogs have claimed only three Southeastern Conference championships of any kind, whether it be during the regular season or the postseason tournament.
No wonder they’re so fired up about that latest title, even if everyone else thinks it was the greatest of flukes.
“They can say what they want,” senior Terrance Woodbury said with a shrug. “We got a championship out of it, so it kind of doesn’t matter to me.”
The Bulldogs hope to build off a remarkable run in the SEC tournament, when a last-place team managed to win four straight games to earn a spot in the NCAAs. That was stunning enough, but Georgia’s accomplishment was even remarkable in light of the circumstances.
A tornado struck the Georgia Dome before the Bulldogs took the court for the quarterfinals against Kentucky. With the building damaged, the game was postponed and the entire tournament shifted up the street to nearby Georgia Tech’s campus arena.
The Bulldogs had to play two games the next day — and won them both to reach the final. They won that one, too, and got to cut down the nets on the court of their bitter state rival.
“It certainly serves as confirmation to the players that we’re doing things the right way,” coach Dennis Felton said. “You always learn through winning and winning championships, especially the way we had to do it, with a team that was short on depth and had to win so many games in such a short period of time, with little rest or preparation.”
Georgia lost to Xavier in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, then lost three key players off its improbable title team. Sundiata Gaines and Dave Bliss finished up their senior seasons, while Billy Humphrey didn’t get to come back for his after repeated run-ins with the law finally led Felton to kick him off the team.
Gaines (14.8 points a game) and Humphrey (12.2) were the top two scorers. Bliss was a big body on the inside, providing the sort of grittiness and hustle that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. Not surprisingly, the Bulldogs were picked to repeat their last-place showing in the SEC East in a preseason media poll.
Felton doesn’t seem concerned.
“I think everyone will be impressed by the improvement of all our returning players,” he said. “I love ‘em as a group. I really enjoy coaching them and I’m excited by what they’re capable of doing. It looks like nobody thinks we’ll be any good, but I’m really optimistic about what they’re capable of doing in the long run.”
The Bulldogs battled injuries during the preseason. Returning starters Woodbury and Albert Jackson were both slowed by sprained ankles. Touted freshman Trey Thompkins got a late start after spraining a knee in a summer pickup game. Another freshman, Ebuka Anayorah, never got on the court. A stress fracture in his leg required surgery, so he’s taking a redshirt year.
Felton wasn’t sure who’d be healthy enough to play in Friday night’s opener against USC-Upstate, but the Bulldogs don’t have a lot of recovery time.
They’re taking part in the NIT Season Tipoff and also have games against Illinois of the Big Ten, Virginia Tech of the Atlantic Coast Conference and Missouri of the Big 12 before getting into their SEC slate.
“We’ve always been real ambitious with our schedule,” Felton said. “We might have bitten off more than we should have this time. We’ll see.”
The coach was still tinkering with his lineup, trying to come up with a combination beyond Woodbury, a swingman who averaged 11 points a game, and the 6-foot-11, 265-pound Jackson. The big center averaged just 3.7 points and 4.3 rebounds a game last season, but Felton believes he has enormous potential and is counting on much better numbers.
Jeremy Price, a 6-8 forward, will surely take on a bigger role after averaging 8.1 points during a promising freshman season. When healthy, the 6-9 Thompkins surely will be a key member of the rotation, having shown the ability to produce points on the inside and the perimeter. He was the top scorer and rebounder at national power Oak Hill as a high school junior, and led Wesleyan to a Georgia state title last season.
The backcourt looks more unsettled.
Zac Swansey, who hit some huge shots in the SEC tournament after playing a minor role during the regular season, will move into one of the guard positions. The 6-foot-1 sophomore seems better suited for the point, but he could slide into the shooting guard slot to give freshman Dustin Ware some playing time. Senior Corey Butler, a former walk-on, provides leadership in the backcourt. Sophomore Troy Brewer and freshman Travis Leslie are in the mix, as well.
Felton, whose job was thought to be in jeopardy before Georgia won the SEC tournament, received a vote of confidence from the administration but, tellingly, did not receive a contract extension.
Still, he’s confident the program is on the right track heading into his sixth season in Athens — especially with the way the fifth one ended.
“That’s an experience you can feed off of as you move forward,” Felton said. “Even against the toughest odds, anything is possible.”