Seniors Lead Georgia Resurgence

ATHENS - If Georgia can extend its two-game winning streak far enough to wind up on the NCAA Tournament bubble, it will do so on the backs of its seniors -- four players many people wrote off three months ago.

Chris Daniels, Jonas Hayes, Damien Wilkins and Rashad Wright were planning to culminate their careers with a program on the rise under a coach they loved, Jim Harrick. Instead, they had their basketball lives flipped upside down and entered this season playing for a rebuilding program under a coach they hardly knew, Dennis Felton.

The marriage seemed doomed from the start, particularly after Felton dismissed a classmate, Steve Thomas, and publicly called out Hayes for a lack of commitment before leading his first practice. The doomsday predictions seemed right on the mark when the Bulldogs (13-10 overall, 5-7 SEC) lost to Winthrop by 20 points and then started the SEC season 1-5.

However, the choice of the Bulldogs' four seniors to get behind Felton and his system has powered a budding resurgence as Georgia prepares to play Tennessee (13-9, 5-6) today at 2 p.m. in Stegeman Coliseum. A victory today would bring the Bulldogs' turnaround full circle since they opened the conference season with an 89-65 loss to the Volunteers.

"We are going into a hornet's nest," Tennessee coach Buzz Peterson said. "I'm sure our first meeting this season will be on their minds. They are playing with a lot of confidence now."

The evolution from doormats to contenders can be attributed to a quartet of senior survivors. Two - Daniels and Wright - were brought in by Harrick following a 10-20 season and were lightly regarded among the nation's recruits. A third, Hayes, arrived as the running mate of his brother, NBA lottery pick Jarvis, the following year. The fourth, Wilkins, transferred in after an disappointing stay at North Carolina State.

Initially, their time in Athens was a smashing success. As a group, along with Jarvis Hayes and Ezra Williams, they had the Bulldogs poised to enter last year's NCAA Tournament as a No. 4 seed or higher. Then, an NCAA investigation led to the abrupt end of their season.

Felton was hired five weeks later and immediately told Georgia's seniors the way they had played for three years was a thing of the past. Not only that, but Felton's way was "basically the total opposite of what we'd been used to for three or four years," Hayes said.

"It's been a tough adjustment period," he added. "It was hard. It was definitely hard."

Even Felton admits the Bulldogs' seniors easily could have given up on the season before it began.

"I'm sure they always fight that demon," he said. "I knew that was going to be a feeling to fight all year -- let's get through this and be gone. It's human nature, especially when it involves hard work."

Felton's take-it-or-leave-it approach couldn't have made the transition any easier.

"I haven't spent much time asking them their opinion on how we're going to play," he said after Georgia upset Kentucky.

Still, the coach said, he recognizes and appreciates the fact that his seniors have accepted the change.

"They've given me the impression from the beginning that they were committed to doing it," he said. "They have never shown any outward signs of fighting what we're trying to do."

There were times, though, Hayes admits, that the seniors had to remind themselves of their ultimate goal -- ending their careers on a high note.

"There were many talks about that," he said. "(Us saying) this is what we have to do, we have to do it. We had to do it if we were going to keep winning. We knew from Day 1 we had to buy into his system or we wouldn't be going anywhere in March."

Wright added, "It's all about us being willing to make that change to do what is best for the team."

The commitment of the seniors has been so complete that they have grown to appreciate Felton and his defense-first system.

"He's a cool person to play for," Hayes said.

That attitude by Georgia's seniors, and their choice to give it all for a new coach, is the single most important reason for Georgia's surprising recent success, Felton said.

"There's nobody who has more impact on what we do this season, including me," he said. "If they wanted to just play like they played last year, we wouldn't have won a game this year - not one game."

Georgia vs. Tennessee
2 p.m./Stegeman Coliseum
Broadcast: JP-TV
Records: Georgia 13-10 overall, 5-7 SEC; Tennessee 13-9, 5-6
Coaches: Georgia -- Dennis Felton (13-10, 1st season); Tennessee -- Buzz Peterson (45-37, 3rd season)
Tennessee starters: G Scooter McFadgon, 6-5, Jr. (18.4 ppg, 4 rpg); G C.J. Watson, 6-2, So. (11.8 ppg, 5.4 apg); G Stanley Asumnu, 6-5, So., (5.7 ppg, 2.5 rpg); F Jemere Hendrick, 6-8, So. (7.6 ppg, 7 rpg); F Brandon Crump, 6-10, Jr. (15.5 ppg, 7.4 rpg).
Georgia starters: G Rashad Wright, 6-3, Sr. (13.9 ppg, 3 apg); G Levi Stukes, 6-1, Fr. (8.9 ppg, 2.7 rpg); F Damien Wilkins, 6-7, Sr. (13.2
ppg, 5.7 rpg); F Chris Daniels, 6-7, Sr. (9.8 ppg, 8.7 rpg); F Jonas Hayes, 6-7, Sr. (12.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg).
Outlook: Felton spoke publicly Friday for the first time since Bulldogs fans stormed the court after Tuesday's victory over Florida, and Felton
said he didn't see anything "out of line" in the celebration. Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley and coach Billy Donovan were upset after
the game because they said Georgia fans shoved Gator player Matt Walsh. "I didn't see anybody get abused or confronted," Felton said. "That
doesn't mean it didn't happen. If it had happened to my player, I'd have a problem with it, but I'd definitely have more of a problem with losing
the game than with that stuff." Felton said he was glad to see the fans' exuberance. "It was a whole lot of fun," he said. "That was my first
glimpse all year of what it can be like. We haven't had a great home presence in terms of our fans most of the year. It's been average to
below average most of the season." ... Georgia's players are eager to avenge the season's first meeting with Tennessee, an 89-65 Volunteer
victory. "That wasn't Georgia. I don't know who that was," Hayes said. "We want to right the ship with that team there." ... Today's game will
be played one day before the 40th anniversary of Stegeman Coliseum, which opened its doors on Feb. 22, 1964. Georgia beat Georgia Tech 81-68 in the debut. A halftime ceremony today will recognize the milestone.

Next up: Georgia at South Carolina, Feb. 28, 7:30 p.m.

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