After a long season, Dawgs get ready for SECs

ATLANTA - Georgia's basketball players have stared at the same mantra for half the season now.

It's taped inside of their lockers at Stegeman Coliseum: "When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without a crack showing in it. Yet at the 101st blow, it will split in two and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone on before."

The quote belongs to Jacob Riis, a Denmark-born immigrant who gained national recognition as a journalist in the late 1800s while crusading for reform of New York's slum housing situation. It's also fitting when looking out over the mess this season has become for the Bulldogs.

Georgia's players will take what is probably their last whack at Riis' rock today when they face Mississippi State in the first round of the SEC Tournament here in the Georgia Dome. Georgia (8-19, 2-14 SEC) is the No. 6 seed in the East. Mississippi State (21-9, 9-7) is the No. 3 seed in the West.

There are no cracks showing in the rock yet, and not even the job foreman can say when it's finally going to give.

"We don't have the character we need as a team yet," second-year coach Dennis Felton said. "We're still very immature. That's my biggest concern."

That statement pretty much kills the notion that adversity, in and of itself, builds character. The Bulldogs are nearing the end of one of the most adverse seasons in school history. The last time Georgia won so few conference games was in 1973-74, and it will have to win not just today but also Friday to avoid being the first UGA team since 1977-78 to finish with fewer than 10 wins.

The final results haven't been the only ugliness. What leads up to it hasn't been pretty either.

The Bulldogs finished the regular season ranked last in the SEC in scoring offense, scoring margin, field goal percentage, 3-point field goal percentage, assists, win-loss percentage and turnovers. They finished 301st or worse in the nation in free throw percentage, scoring offense, field goal percentage and assists.

None of that, though, has done anything to shake Felton's faith in himself or his plan to rebuild the Bulldogs.

"You can put this in the book," he said. "I've never had any doubts or done any second-guessing as to how we're going to do it. I know precisely how we're going to do it and one of the biggest parts of being successful is having the backbone and the discipline to stay the course.

"Even if you have a bad plan, if you're persistent enough and work hard enough, you can make that one work."

What he isn't so certain of is how long the process will take. Quite frankly, he thought his team might be further along at this point.

"We have an inkling of the way," he said.

One of the problems has been leadership. Sophomore Levi Stukes has paced the team in scoring (15.4 ppg) but hasn't embraced off-court responsibilities like Felton hoped he would. Stukes was suspended for a game midway through the season, and his two young charges, guards Channing Toney and Sundiata Gaines, have each followed suit in the last two weeks.

"We haven't had that personality show up yet that can take a team by the collar and show them the right way," Felton said.

Even Stukes admits, "The leadership role has been tough for me to handle. A lot of my teammates look up to me and expect me to do the right thing."

There have been some strides made in areas that aren't readily apparent, Felton said, pointing out that the team's defense, rebounding and commitment to playing hard all have improved.

The result of that has been some competitive games down the stretch.

"We've been able to compete pretty well on most nights with teams people would not expect us to compete with," Felton said.

The Bulldogs' willingness to fight against such long odds, as it did in a 50-38 loss to Florida on Wednesday, has earned them respect from some of their conference peers.

"They've asked no quarter," South Carolina coach Dave Odom said. "They've stood up big and strong and played with great courage. They don't want anybody, particularly the fans, to feel sorry for them."

Georgia will add at least five, and perhaps six, new scholarship players to next year's roster, and the teaching process will being again, Felton said.

"I would feel tremendously better about next year right now if we had 10 or 12 (players) like the ones we have now," he said. "Next year, we will still have half a team of raw, green guys."

Next year, though, is next year. For now, the focus is putting a silver lining around this year's dark cloud.

"We've had a rich experience this season, and our goal is to extend that experience as long as we can," Felton said. "The future right now is 3:15 (today) and the opportunity to play Florida the next day. That's all the future I'm concerned about."

Georgia's 2005 recruiting class

All players other than Humphrey have signed a letter of intent. If all six players come to Georgia (Louis Williams is expected to jump to the NBA), the Bulldogs would either need the NCAA to give back the scholarship it took away for rules violations or dismiss a current member of the team to honor all its scholarship commitments.

G Billy Humphrey 6-3, 180
C Kendrick Johnson 6-9, 225
G Mike Mercer 6-4, 170
C Rashaad Singleton 7-1, 220
G Louis Williams 6-1, 175
F Terrance Woodbury 6-6, 205

Today, 3:15 p.m., Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Ga.
Broadcast: Jefferson-Pilot Television, 106.1-FM
Records/rankings: Georgia 8-19 (2-14 SEC), Mississippi State 21-9 (9-7 SEC)
About Georgia: Matt Womack (concussion) and Joey Waldrop (death in family) are questionable for today's game. Forward Corey Gibbs (back, knee) is expected to be available, as are the rest of the Bulldogs, Coach Dennis Felton said Tuesday. ... Freshmen played 69 percent of the minutes for Georgia in the regular season, the highest percentage in the SEC by far. Florida's 41 percent in that category is the second-highest. ... The Bulldogs were outrebounded 45-25 in their last meeting against Mississippi State, a 76-62 loss on Feb. 23. "That's just not acceptable," Felton said. ... This will be the ninth time Georgia has played MSU in the SEC Tournament. Georgia is 7-1 in the first eight meetings.
About Mississippi State: These Bulldogs have won three of four but are coming off a 68-63 home loss to Alabama on Senior Night. ... Mississippi State leads the SEC in rebounding margin (plus-9.6). ... The Bulldogs have now won 20 or more games in each of the last four seasons. That's a school record.
Scouting report: Georgia must win the SEC Tournament to get any sort of postseason berth. While the chances of that are slim, Felton is using it as motivation for his team. "There's only going to be one winner, and we have the same opportunity everybody else has," Felton said. "The first thing we have to do is win our first game against Mississippi State so we'll put all our energy on doing that." Georgia forward Steve Newman said his team's woeful season may give it a mental edge today. "Mississippi State might not expect much from us.," he said. "Maybe we cna come out and play hard and they won't know what hit them." Georgia's biggest challenge will be dealing with first-team All-SEC forward Lawrence Roberts, who scored 19 points and had 12 rebounds on a bad knee in Athens two weeks ago. Georgia will try to deny him the ball in the post and then double-team him when he does get it. "It always starts with Lawrence Roberts for them," Felton said. "He had his way with us to a good degree in Athens."
Next: Winner plays Florida, Friday, 3:15 p.m., Atlanta

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