ATHENS, Ga. ----- Denied in his appeal to have starting forward Steve Thomas' one-game suspension for fighting overturned, Georgia coach Jim Harrick again is facing long odds in his battle for an SEC championship.
Harrick already has pulled off one miracle this season — winning at then-No. 2 Florida on Jan. 19 without Thomas — but it might be even more difficult to sweep the Gators tonight in a nationally televised game.
The advantage of facing Florida at home this time is offset by the return of talented guard Justin Hamilton to Florida's lineup, who was out with an injury last month. And this time the Gators, now ranked sixth in the nation, will be out for revenge.
"This will probably be the biggest test for us,'' said Jonas Hayes, who will fill in for Thomas in the starting lineup.
On Monday, Harrick was still upset after learning his appeal to have Thomas' suspension had been denied.
Thomas and Auburn's Kyle Davis each were ejected for fighting in Georgia's 75-72 loss on Saturday. After returning to Athens and studying replays of the incident, Harrick was convinced Thomas should not face the automatic one-game suspension that accompanies an ejection for fighting in a game.
"My guy got hit up on the side of the head,'' Harrick said Monday. "He got sucker-punched on the back of the head and got slapped on the side of the head and never threw a punch, so really he didn't fight but he has to suffer the consequences. I don't think it's fair, but that's the way the rule is.''
Harrick complains that officials at the game ejected both Davis and Thomas without the benefit of a video review of the incident. The Georgia-Auburn game was not televised. Once the players were ejected for fighting, there was little hope for a successful appeal to have the suspension lifted.
"If there had been a monitor, (the officials) could have reviewed it there,'' Harrick said. "You ought to be allowed to carry it over to the next stage so you can look at the film ... but that's not the way it is.
"I appealed on the fact that my guy didn't fight. The ruling is once a guy gets kicked out, if they deem there is a fight, then he has to sit out the next game. We'll have to accept that.''
Because Thomas chased Davis to the Auburn bench and swung his elbow and arm at Davis, Harrick may have been fighting a no-win war in his appeal. The original ruling from Southeastern Conference commissioner Roy Kramer came less than two hours after the game.
With his 21st-ranked Bulldogs (18-6 overall, 7-4 in the SEC) only one-half game behind No. 6 Florida (18-4, 7-3) in the East, Harrick has to stand up for his players — especially this week. After tonight's visit from Florida, Kentucky comes to Athens on Saturday.
The events of this week could be the difference between first and fourth place for Georgia, Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee.
"There's a lot involved,'' Harrick said. "... This is the week you play for. That's why you have to look at the tape and make judgments, not just go on officials' rulings.''
In the 84-79 win at Florida last month, Hayes scored 13 points as Georgia placed five scorers in double figures. In that game, Thomas was serving a suspension for his alleged involvement in a still-unresolved rape case that now is being reviewed by the Athens-Clarke County District Attorney's office.
No charges have been filed against Thomas or two other Georgia student-athletes named in the allegations — basketball player Tony Cole and football player Brandon Williams.
The win at Florida came 10 days after Georgia scored an equally shocking 88-84 victory at then-No. 8 Kentucky. Those road upsets helped propel the Bulldogs into first place in the East, a spot they held until losing at Auburn.
While Jarvis Hayes and Ezra Williams will need strong outside shooting tonight, Jonas Hayes and Chris Daniels must play stiff defense if Georgia hopes to contain burly 6-foot-9 Udonis Haslem and 6-foot-10 Matt Bonner.
"It meant a lot that we could lose Steve and still beat the No. 2 team in the nation,'' said Jonas Hayes of Georgia's win at Florida.
"We're up to the task. We're all up to the task.''