CHICAGO — Once the disappointment from Georgia's second-round loss to Southern Illinois begins to fade, expectations for a return to the NCAA tournament will start to grow.
Last October, Georgia was picked to finish fifth in the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division at the SEC Media Days. Barring any unexpected offseason developments, the next time those votes are cast by the league's media, Georgia should be picked among the top teams in the league.
Georgia started four sophomores and a junior this year, and its top three reserves were one sophomore and two freshmen. When transfer Damien Wilkins, highly regarded center Alexander Johnson of Albany's Dougherty High and shooting guard Wayne Arnold of Berkmar High join the mix, Coach Jim Harrick will have more size, depth and experience with which to battle the SEC's powers.
Denied a trip to the Sweet 16 this year when it couldn't hold an early 30-11 lead against Southern Illinois Sunday, Georgia may be a Top 15 pick in next year's preseason poll. For the players in the locker room at Chicago's United Center following Sunday's loss to Southern Illinois, thoughts of next season were of little consolation.
"The future is good, but we wanted to capitalize right now,'' said forward Jonas Hayes.
Rarely did Georgia show any signs of youth as it won 22 games, surpassing all expectations. But it may have been inexperience that allowed the Bulldogs to relax when leading by 19 points with more than eight minutes left in the first half.
Georgia had been forced to play through the adversity of suspensions, the shooting death of guard Ezra Williams' brother, and an ongoing investigation of the role of two players in an alleged on-campus rape. All season the players seemed more comfortable in the role of underdog than favorite, and the 30-11 lead may have been one final dose of success that the team was too inexperienced to handle.
Even so, the successes of the season were notable:
Georgia won a share of its first Eastern Division title. Even though it lost an opportunity to win the division outright when it lost to Tennessee in its final regular-season game, Georgia still claimed the No. 1 seed from the division in the SEC tournament by winning tie-breakers against Kentucky and Florida.
Georgia had never beaten a team ranked as high as No. 2 before it scored the upset at Florida on Jan. 19.
The Bulldogs ended a 16-game losing streak in its series with Kentucky by sweeping the Wildcats. Georgia beat then-No. 8 Kentucky at Rupp Arena for only the second time.
Georgia's 14-2 opening was its best start in 71 years.
The Bulldogs climbed as high as No. 15 in The Associated Press poll, its highest ranking in six years.
Finally, Georgia won an NCAA tournament game for the first time since 1996, beating Murray State 85-68 in Friday's first round.
Along the way, Jarvis Hayes emerged as a star player. He scored a career-high 31 points against Murray State and added 26 against Southern Illinois.
Williams battled Hayes for the team's scoring lead all season. Despite a late-season decline in scoring, forward Chris Daniels was invaluable for his rebounding, defense and leadership. Point guard Rashad Wright was Harrick's pick for the team's most valuable player.
"It has been a very enjoyable team to coach,'' Harrick said. "The guys listen. I think the sophomores kind of felt their age with (Southern Illinois senior center) Rolan Roberts. He's a 23-year-old veteran.''
Harrick believes the toll of off-court problems showed late in the season.
"I think all the things together kind of took a little intensity from our basketball team,'' he said. "I know Ezra hasn't been as good. I'm not going to fault him for that. He's had a tough time.''
While Georgia may have been drained mentally, Harrick disagreed with those who suggested his team wore down physically against Southern Illinois.
Harrick gave only seven players substantial minutes in the two NCAA games.
Next year, when expectations rise, Georgia should be better staffed to make a longer run in the tournament.
Charles can be reached here: CEOdum@aol.com