Dawgs to say goodbye to seniors

ATHENS – Georgia may not make the NCAA Tournament this year. In fact, it's likely that it won't.

But at least nobody stares and points any more.

The Bulldoga will see off the only two seniors on their roster today – forward Steve Newman and guard Levi Stukes – prior to their 4 p.m. game against Tennessee, the last regular season home game for the pair. It's a symbolic passing for both the players and their team.

Newman and Stukes were the first players signed by Felton when he was handed the mess made by Jim Harrick four seasons ago. After releasing four Harrick signees shortly after being hired, Felton signed Newman and Stukes in April.

It was a match made at least partly out of desperation. Georgia needed players, almost any players, and Stukes and Newman needed a school.

"They joined a program in the most turbulent of times," Felton said. "They've been a big, big part of the process of rebuilding Georgia basketball and bringing respect back the program and getting it back on its feet and away from those dark days."

Felton is the first to point out that he didn't snag Newman or Stukes out from under the nose of Kentucky or North Carolina, or even of Vanderbilt.

"Steve didn't have a real, real long list of opportunities to chose from," Felton said. "Everybody in the country wasn't after him. Levi was the same way. There were reasons why he was still available too, but the bottom line is they had some other opportunities and they chose Georgia."

What the program provided them was the chance to play major college basketball and lots of it. It was an opportunity no one else was offering.

The price they paid in return can be measured in pity. After a freshman season spent supporting a veteran group that went 16-14 in 2004, Newman and Stukes were cast as the leaders of the 2005 team, a group that was as overmatched as any SEC team in modern history and finished 8-20 overall.

"We had a lot of folks pointing fingers at us, making jokes out of us," Felton said. "They withstood all that."

The next year, Georgia improved to 15-15. Now, the Bulldogs are 17-11 and have guaranteed themselves a non-losing record in the conference for the first time under Felton. If Georgia wins today or makes a run in next week's conference tournament, it could even receive an invitation to the NCAA Tournament.

The steady progress is a point of pride for both players.

"It just shows that this program is going nowhere but up," Newman said. "Hopefully, we'll be able to go to the NCAA Tournament and have a chance to experience that."

Even an NIT berth would be a step in the right direction for the Bulldogs, Newman conceded.

"We haven't gotten the respect that I think we've deserved (in the past), but I think we've come in and we play hard every game, always competing," he said. "I think we've earned some respect, and hopefully people view us in a different light now."

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