Senior Day will feature a walkon

ATHENS – Georgia plays its Senior Day game tonight with no scholarship seniors, a rarity in college basketball and part of the reason the Bulldogs have struggled so much this year.

The Bulldogs will only honor one player tonight, walk-on Tommy Wainscott, but he'll have to carry the banner for an entire group of players who are worthy of a little recognition.

Wainscott is one of five players on Georgia's roster to make the team during an open tryout in October. Although he's the only senior in the group, tonight's game against Florida could be the last game in Stegeman Coliseum for all five of these players who sometimes have trouble believing they ever made it at all.

"I'm not sure we've ever really talked about it that way, but I think for all us this is a dream come true, to play Division I basketball in the SEC," said Julian Williams, who along with Wainscott, Matt Womack, Blake Davenport and P.J. Bullock made the team that day. "I think all of us realize the opportunity that has been given to us to live our dream."

The Bulldogs have seven scholarship players this season and a handful of preferred walk-ons like Joey Waldrop, Kevin Brophy and Jay McAuley, but five of their players are more walk-ups than walk-ons. They made the team in the most time-tested manner of all.

"We do it every year, but this was the first time it was a critical part of the process," Coach Dennis Felton said. "You really had to watch and find out who could help you the most."

No ringers showed up.

"When I walked in, I was pretty nervous," Womack said. "Then I walked out there and saw what I was up against and said, ‘I can do this.'"

These aren't players who would be playing at Valparaiso or another mid-major school if they weren't at Georgia. They're players who would be playing on intramural teams. In fact, Wainscott is a veteran of the Georgia intramural courts and Womack already had plans to join former high school classmates on a team.

"They told me they wished they could have had me," he said. "They were pretty good, but they said they might have been able to win if I'd played with them."

Womack and Wainscott have contributed the most. Womack is averaging 7.6 minutes and almost a point per game, while Wainscott has played in 13 games and got some serious national television face time when he had a run-in with Florida star Matt Walsh during a game in Gainesville.

But all of them have contributed, if nothing else by showing up every day so the Bulldogs would have enough players to practice.

"Those guys there are some of our most focused guys," Felton said. "They've done an outstanding job of listening and learning and being very consistent with their attentiveness."

Georgia's walk-ons put in just as much time as the players who are getting their education free – about 30 hours a week including travel and games – and they're most often used simply to fill out teams in practices. The sacrifices are all worth it, though.

"Growing up as a kid. I always watched Kentucky and Tennessee and Georgia Tech," Davenport said. "I always saw the courts on TV, and I always wondered what it would be like to play on those courts just out of curiosity, then all of a sudden, I'm on the courts, warming up with the team. It's surreal. Sometimes I have to pinch myself to make sure I'm not dreaming."

Womack watched Georgia Tech play for the national championship last year while on a spring break cruise. On Dec. 5, he played one minute in an 87-49 loss to the Yellow Jackets.

"All of a sudden, I'm out there on the court with all these guys I've seen on TV," he said.

It's not just the games, either. The Bulldogs aren't playing like a premier team, but they still travel the same way every other SEC team does – in style. They fly in a chartered plane to places as far away as Vancouver.

"Getting on your own airplane is cool," Davenport said.

And they stay in nice places when they get there. Even a trip to Atlanta for a December game against Oregon State was worth a night at the Marriott Marquis downtown. For next week's SEC Tournament, the Bulldogs will stay at the Ritz-Carlton.

"Especially every time we travel, you sit here and think, ‘Man, last year I was at home watching this game on TV,'" Womack said.

Truth be told, even the losing is easier for the walk-ons.

"Obviously, losing is not fun because we get out there and we really do work so hard," Womack said. "It's frustrating, but still, I'm like, I can't complain."

With Georgia bringing in as many as six new players next year and expected to have at least 12 scholarship players, the Bulldogs' walk-ons see the writing on the wall. Only 15 players are allowed to dress out for SEC games. Felton declined to discuss what might happen to the walk-ons in next year's numbers crunch, but the players have talked about it.

"With five, six guys coming in next year, we're sitting there counting spots and saying, ‘Man, what's left for us?'" Womack said. "We'll just see. We'll have to take the offseason to think about what is going on and what is best for us. We'll see how all that shakes out over the next couple months."

At least one already has made up his mind.

"I'm not trying out next year," Davenport said. "I'm enjoying these next couple weeks and just cherishing it while I can."


Today, 8 p.m., Stegeman Coliseum, Athens

Broadcast: Jefferson-Pilot, 106.1-FM

Rankings/records: Georgia 8-17 (2-12 SEC), Florida 18-7 (10-4 SEC)

About Georgia: The Bulldogs need to win two more games to avoid being the first Georgia team since 1977 to finish with a single digit in victories. … Only Dave Bliss and Steve Newman have started all 25 games for the Bulldogs. … Channing Toney averages 2.4 free throws per game, one-tenth short of qualifying for the SEC and NCAA rankings. If he qualified, his 90.8 percent shooting from the line would rank first in the conference and 10th in the nation.

About Florida: If the Gators win tonight, they will have had a winning SEC road record in three of the last five years. … Florida is coming off the biggest comeback ever by a Billy Donovan-coached team, coming back from 17-point deficit to win against South Carolina. … The Gators are 13-1 when Matt Walsh has five-plus assists.

Scouting report: The Bulldogs lost 70-47 in Florida in January without leading scorer Levi Stukes (suspension). Georgia is expected to have its full complement of players today, but it shouldn't make any difference. The Gators have one of the best backcourts in the SEC with Walsh and Anthony Roberson, but that won't be the biggest problem for Georgia. That would be David Lee, the senior forward who is finally playing like he should have been the last three years. The strong and athletic Lee (13.3 points per game) is an almost impossible matchup for the post-thin Bulldogs.

Next: Georgia at Tennessee, 7 p.m., Saturday; Florida vs. Kentucky, Sunday, noon.

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