Stukes... Georgia's only returning starter

ATHENS -- Georgia hasn't played a regular-season game yet, but already there have been tough times. The Bulldogs lost two exhibition games in Canada and struggled with St. Francis Xavier and Kentucky Wesleyan when they came home.

And almost every time things got hairy in one of those warmup games, Levi Stukes found himself looking for Rashad Wright "and realizing he's gone," Stukes said. Not only is Wright, Georgia's former point guard, gone but Chris Daniels, Jonas Hayes and Damien Wilkins are, too.

That leaves Stukes as Georgia's only returning starter and only player who ever has averaged more than three points per game in college.

"It's been real, real, I don't know how to say it ... crazy," Stukes said.

As a sophomore, Stukes qualifies as the elder statesman for the Bulldogs, who have only one upperclassman, junior walk-on Jay McAuley, on their roster. Georgia, which was 4-2 in its exhibition schedule, opens the season Tuesday against Western Kentucky at 7 p.m. in Stegeman Coliseum.

"What (Stukes) needs to be is he needs to be the leading force," Coach Dennis Felton said. "It's a tough thing to ask of a guy who was a freshman a year ago, but he's the closest thing we have."

Last season, Stukes averaged 30.1 minutes and 9.5 points per game, both totals third-best among SEC freshmen. This year, not only will he have to take more of the scoring load, he'll have to fill the leadership void left by four of the most experienced players in the school's basketball history.

"I feel it's my duty to show (the freshmen and less experienced sophomores) the same stuff the four seniors showed me," Stukes said.

The transition has taken effort from Stukes and Felton. Stukes has always been a vocal player, but "now you're asking him to be a lot more thoughtful and a lot more purposeful in what he says," Felton said.

"He needs to get to the point where he's one of the guys on the team who is above reproach," he said. "He's working really hard to be that kind of leader for us. There are times I'm very proud."

Stukes, who started all but one game last year, already has proven himself as a scorer. He had the second-highest 3-point shooting percentage (38 percent) of all Georgia's regulars last year and scored in double figures six times in the Bulldogs' last nine games, including a career-high 25 against Auburn when he hit eight 3-pointers. He will remain as Georgia's starting shooting guard this year as long as freshman Sundiata Gaines can handle the point guard spot.

"I just know I need to come out and play my game," Stukes said, "and hopefully my teammates will follow me."

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