Harrick building team the old-fashioned way

Georgia coach Jim Harrick isn't about to turn down a superstar player, even at the risk of having that player for only one year.

Georgia coach Jim Harrick isn't about to turn down a superstar player, even at the risk of having that player for only one year.

Such is the lure of instant gratification — and instant championships. But in an era where the elite stars are bypassing college completely and the second-tier stars are leaving college after one or two seasons, there is something to be said for a team comprised of solid, young players who may have the opportunity to still be playing together in their senior seasons.

That plan has Harrick's 17th-ranked Bulldogs (17-5 overall, 6-3 in the Southeastern Conference) sitting atop the Eastern Division in a season they were picked to finish at or near the bottom.

"I like to do it this way,'' Harrick said as he team prepared for tonight's game at Mississippi State. "I like to have four-year guys.''

The emerging talents of Jarvis Hayes may make him an early entry candidate for the NBA draft, but Harrick says even the talented sophomore, who leads Georgia with 17.7 points per game, should complete his college eligibility.

Harrick says he is certain Georgia's other starters — junior Ezra Williams and sophomores Steve Thomas, Chris Daniels and Rashad Wright — are four-year players. That could change  if Williams and Daniels continue to develop or if Williams does not earn his fourth year of academic eligibility.

Williams was held out as a partial qualifier in his freshman year, and so he was a sophomore when he first played last season. He can regain that year of eligibility if he is able to graduate next year.

Jermaine Phillips took advantage of that same rule for partial qualifiers to earn his fourth year of eligibility in 2001 for the football team. If Williams can earn his fourth year of eligibility, Harrick might have a   2003-04 senior class of Jarvis and Jonas Hayes, Daniels, Thomas, Wright, Williams and Damien Wilkins.

Wilkins, sitting out this season after his transfer from North Carolina State, will be a junior next season. Also, Harrick has help coming next year, including 6-foot-9 Alexander Johnson of Dougherty High in Albany, Ga.

The surprise in Georgia's mix of talent is Fred Gibson, the freshman who walked on from the football team in January and has provided instant energy and points off the bench.

Said Harrick of Gibson's ability to make an impact without the benefit of preseason practice: "That blows my mind. I've never had a kid to do that. I never dreamed this. If Freddy had said ‘I don't want to play' it wouldn't have bothered me at all because I had no idea he'd make the impact he has.'' Harrick said if the 6-foot-4 Gibson were a full-time basketball player, "He would be very, very, very good. He's got the skills. He's got the whole package. He can run, jump, dunk, shoot. ... He might be the guy who could
play two (professional) sports.''

Making out a starting lineup could be a pleasant dilemma for Harrick next season. The arrival of Johnson and Wilkins likely would have made Georgia a pick to contend in the East next season even if the Bulldogs had not emerged as the surprise team in the conference this year.

First, Harrick and his players want to take advantage of this season, beginning with a tough road game at Mississippi State (17-5 overall, 4-4 in the SEC).

  "We've got to keep this up, keep this going and not fall off,'' said Williams after Georgia ended its first two-game losing streak of the season with a 79-72 win over Ole Miss Saturday. In that win, Thomas started for the first time since he was suspended for three games last month.

Added Williams: "With Thomas back in the lineup, I think everybody felt more comfortable. To get the starting five back together, we had better rhythm. We're used to playing together.''

Just wait until 2004.

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