This year did make a difference for Dawgs

ATLANTA — Jonas Hayes sure had the endurance. <p> Of course, if you play basketball these days at Georgia, you better not wear out too quickly. <p> Hayes didn't.

He handled every wave, every test, and never did his legs wobble.

So solid was Hayes — after the game.

Hayes stood in one of the scores of auxiliary locker rooms in the Georgia Dome and answered question after question about mostly the same inquiries.

Most popular? "Have you guys gotten into Kentucky's head?"

Sure, it was time to look ahead to today and what should be the hoops version of a Georgia-Florida football game.

But Hayes and fellow seniors Chris Daniels, Rashad Wright, and Damien Wilkins couldn't help but savor the afternoon's 73-59 thumping of Auburn in the first game of the Southeastern Conference Tournament in Atlanta.

"It feels good," Hayes said smiling. "It was probably the best day of the season."

Hayes never lost this little smile throughout the questions, those original and repeated. A good 25 minutes into it, he hardly tired of repeating a different version of the same answer to a question first asked 24 minutes earlier.

Why not smile? Why not walk out onto the Dome floor today with a smile?

They've only waited almost 370 days to do this. They've endured the smirks and wisecracks and a coaching change and investigations and academic inquiries.

Everything about them that sports is supposed to strengthen — character, teamwork, intelligence, integrity — has been tested and questioned for 12 months.

And Georgia comes out and makes 10 of its first 16 shots, and scores 11 points before Auburn marks. Levi Stukes shoots like he's in his high school gym, and the Bulldogs defense is just about squeezing into Auburn uniforms.

The team that wasn't holding parties to greet Dennis Felton as head coach last spring is playing his game and is on the verge of an unimaginable NCAA bid. Nobody has come farther than Hayes, who immediately trotted into Felton's doghouse before the season.

"It was an adjustment period," Hayes said. "We had to get acclimated to each other."

Acclimation achieved.

And thus, this is how funky sports can be, and how glorious the game of college basketball is.

Kentucky wants a piece of Georgia.

Kentucky. Wants a big piece. Of Georgia. In basketball.

The Cats are gunning for the Dogs.

Somewhere, Steve Spurrier is somehow cheering for Kentucky.

The Wildcats have the chip on their collective shoulder. They've been humbled and angered in a pair of losses to a team thumped by Winthrop.

By a team that lost by 24 at Tennessee, and scored a whole 39 points in losing at Vanderbilt.

Uh, UK beat Winthrop by 21, Vandy by 12 (to go with a six-point loss), and topped Tennessee by one and 32, respectively. But enough about today's bone-crushing chess match. Thursday was about returning — with permission — to the SEC Tournament, and rolling through the first game with more precision and work ethic than perhaps expected.

Jarvis Hayes was about as giddy as his younger brother, and if you don't think there was a huge, massive part of him that wishes he'd just showered and stood with a Georgia uniform at his feet answering the same questions, you'd be way wrong.

He leered behind the media pack, a grin wider than the Downtown Connector as his brother went through the drill.

"Gimme a question. What can I ask him?" he begged of Daniels. Way too much genuine enthusiasm for somebody in the NBA, but not for somebody who was last year's leader whose season died suddenly and painfully.

Thursday may have been part exoricism from Harrick's Hell and Adams' Abyss, but the sign that Georgia might just have a little bit more upstairs than given credit for came during attempts to ply that angle.

You might as well have asked about the Prohibition Era.

"We're here now," Wilkins said. "I don't think our focus should be anything about last year. If we do, it'll be too stressful. We've gotta think about Auburn, we gotta think about Kentucky, and whatever happens after that.

"I don't think it's ... appropriate ... to sustain any type of mental focus on last year."

There's a cliche in sportswriting that was fresh about 130 years ago, thus quite frowned upon. But it's actually sort of fitting when you consider that Hayes, Daniels, Wright and Wilkins played in no postseason as juniors, and have watched their program and school go through embarrassment, verbal abuse, and a national mocking.

The cliche is fitting with the vision of Hayes standing wrapped in a towel, smiling and having the same conversation with different people for half an hour after simply beating Auburn by 13.

What a difference a year DOES make.

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