ATHENS, Ga. — Three months ago, Georgia was picked to finish fifth or sixth in the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division.
"Really, no one knew who was on our team then,'' said Georgia coach Jim Harrick Thursday.
After an 11-2 run through its pre-conference schedule, Georgia looks like more than a bottom-tier team in the SEC, though the competition in the East may make that difficult to prove.
Georgia opens its SEC schedule Saturday at 4 p.m. against Vanderbilt at Stegeman Coliseum. It will have had almost two weeks since its last game to further fine-tune the team that is almost completely different than a year ago.
This week, forward Fred Gibson has joined the basketball team and freshman Michael Dean has had more time to catch up with his teammates after joining the team in the middle of December.
Dean has seen limited playing time in four games since gaining his academic eligibility on Dec. 14. He could not practice with the team before joining the team for its Dec. 15 game at South Alabama, and Georgia had little practice time while on the road at Pepperdine and in Hawaii for the Rainbow Classic.
Now the break between games has provided time for more intense practice.
"I think we've got our legs back and got our conditioning back,'' Harrick said.
The 6-foot-4 Gibson is still recovering from a leg injury he suffered while making a catch and extending for more yards in the Music City Bowl game loss to Boston College last Friday, so any appearance he makes against Vanderbilt may be brief.
"They're both learning and coming along decently,'' Harrick said Thursday. "I've been encouraged by their performance.''
Gibson and Dean will add depth to Georgia's wing positions. Though the team still lacks depth inside, Harrick now has the option to play eight to 10 players.
Last year, Harrick led Georgia to a surprise NCAA tournament appearance. At 11-2, the Bulldogs could contend for another NCAA berth if they finish around .500 in conference games.
"I look at the SEC and I see two just splendid teams in Kentucky and Florida,'' Harrick said. "There are about eight to 10 other teams all together. Who is going to come out of that pack?''
The key will be avoiding injuries. The time off since a runner-up finish in the Rainbow Classic in Hawaii has given backup forward Jonas Hayes a chance to recover from an open dislocation of his index finger. Jarvis Hayes also has had more time to fully recover from a sprained knee.
With Ezra Williams averaging 17.8 points per game and Jarvis Hayes adding 16.5, Georgia has two lead scorers.
With Dean adding his 3-point shooting and Gibson adding his leaping ability and shooting skills, Harrick now has two more options on the bench if Williams or Hayes have an off game from their wing positions.
"With Dean and Gibson, we have a little more depth than we've had,'' Harrick said. "Even (backup power forward) Ryan Pevey has really stepped it up. I'm not afraid to use a bunch of people.''
Added Harrick: "I like our guys. I like our team. They've played together and they've played hard.''