ATHENS, Ga. ----- It didn't matter that Chris Daniels started only seven games as a freshman.
As a sophomore, Daniels was told from the first day of practice by Georgia coach Jim Harrick that he would have to play a lead role for the Bulldogs as one of the team's few true inside players.
Even Harrick is surprised that 14 games into the season he calls Daniels his most reliable player.
"Often times I say this guy has been our best player or this guy has been our best player, but every guy I've talked about has been inconsistent except Chris Daniels,'' Harrick said Monday as Georgia prepared for Wednesday night's game at No. 8 Kentucky.
Georgia's best-known players are Ezra Williams and Jarvis Hayes, who play the wing positions and have the top scoring averages for the Bulldogs (12-2 overall, 1-0 in the Southeastern Conference).
But Daniels, who matched his career high with 21 points in Saturday's 82-69 win over Vanderbilt, has been a surprisingly solid scorer with his average of 12.9 points per game.
Daniels is not asked to take the scoring lead every game, but he leads consistently in many other ways.
Daniels, an Albany, Ga., native, paces Georgia in rebounds (7.4), blocked shots (22, including four Saturday), steals (32, including three Saturday) and field goal percentage (57.1).
In Harrick's opinion, however, nothing is more important than Daniels' defense.
"The defense comes first,'' Harrick said. "Then he just does everything: rebounds, assists, blocked shots, steals. He's tough. He knocks down the open jump shots. He makes the foul shots. He's probably our toughest player.''
At 6-foot-7 and 210 pounds, Daniels has become Georgia's defensive stopper, regularly assigned to the other team's top scorer. He held Vanderbilt's Matt Freije to 12 points Saturday and will be assigned to Kentucky's Tayshaun Prince Wednesday night.
"(Daniels) locked (Freije) up I thought and that's the key to beating Vanderbilt,'' Harrick said. "He's done that with just about every guy we've put him on, big guy, little guy, in the post, whatever.''
Said Daniels: "Some nights your shot can be off, but you can always play hard on defense.
"You have to take pride in being able to stop your man one on one, especially the type players you face every day in the SEC.''
Daniels averaged 23.3 points and 10.8 rebounds as a senior at Monroe High in Albany and was rated one of the state's 10 best players. Playing behind seniors Shon Coleman and Anthony Evans last year, Daniels averaged only 11 minutes per game but began to show late in the season that he might be a starter this year.
Playing only in the final 11 minutes of a Feb. 21 game against Tennessee, Daniels scored 12 points with five rebounds. He also began to show he could be a defensive stopper.
Still, the 12 points against the Vols marked his only game of the season in double figures. It was hard to project he could be such a consistent producer this season, where he has been in double figures in eight of his last nine games.
"Coach told me at the start of the season that me and (sophomore forward) Steve (Thomas) have to carry a heavy load this season,'' Daniels said. "I took it upon myself in the offseason to work hard and prepare myself to play this way.''
Without the inside production from Daniels and Thomas, the 3-point shooting of Hayes and Williams would mean little.
Georgia still is an underdog in Wednesday night's game at Kentucky, but thanks in large part to Daniels' play, the Bulldogs may be much better than their modest preseason expectations.
Photo caption: Georgia's Chris Daniels scores with under eight seconds left in double overtime to give Georgia the 77-75 win over Tennessee Saturday, Jan. 27, 2001 in Athens, Ga.. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Charles Odum can be reached at CEOdum@aol.com.