Seniors will have happy memories

ATHENS -- Once Georgia's four senior basketball players are over the sting of their NCAA Tournament rejection and subsequent flame-out in the NIT, they will have plenty of happy memories from the 2003-04 season.

"I don't think anybody expected us to beat Kentucky twice," senior Damien Wilkins said. "I don't think anybody expected us to beat Georgia Tech, or go to overtime against Gonzaga. I don't think anybody expected us to beat Florida. But we did."

Coach Dennis Felton's first season in Athens ended at 16-14 when the Bulldogs lost to Iowa State in the first round of the NIT. That Felton coaxed 16 wins and so many marquee victories out of a team expected to go nowhere gave Bulldog fans hope that he's the right man to lead to program past the embarrassing Jim Harrick era.

However, Felton is quick to caution that the progress this year's team showed can't be expected next year with those four seniors gone.

"Next year will be very, very challenging," Felton said. "We'll be moving forward, but it might not be in such a noticeable way."

The departure of Wilkins, Rashad Wright, Chris Daniels and Jonas Hayes leaves the Bulldogs with just four scholarship players and all of them were freshmen this year. (Corey Gibbs didn't play due to recurring knee problems. His availability for next season is still undetermined.)

Georgia signed guards Channing Toney and Sundiata Gaines in the early signing period, but the NCAA's "5/8 rule" will limit them to signing just three more this spring. That means, at best, the Bulldogs will be four scholarships short of the NCAA's allowed maximum of 13.

"Our biggest hindrance continues to be we have to build a roster from scratch," Felton said.

Georgia is expected to sign all three it is allowed and will look hard at junior college players, who generally enter school more ready to contribute than freshmen. At least two of the spring signees will be post players, Felton said.

"We're going to sign the best we can get," he said.

The brunt of the scoring responsibility next year probably will fall on guard Levi Stukes, who averaged 9.1 points per game in the regular season and scored a career-high 25 in the Bulldogs' first round SEC Tournament victory over Auburn. Georgia also will have Steve Newman and Marcus Sikes returning.

They will have to make up for the 74.3 percent of scoring, 61.7 percent of rebounding and 63.9 percent of assists that the seniors will take with them.

"It was a pretty good run," Hayes said. "I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world."

"We're a bunch of guys who didn't quit on each other," Wilkins said, "and that's pretty much all you can ask."

After a rocky start that included Felton dismissing senior Steve Thomas and publicly chiding Hayes for a lack of commitment, the coach and the team's departing seniors forged an unlikely bond.

"I love them. They are beautiful people," Felton said. "There's no doubt about it, we're going to build a special basketball program at Georgia, and I've always talked to them about being the foundation of that."

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