Make or Break time for Dawgs? Maybe...

ATHENS – To say this is a make-or-break season for Georgia's men's basketball team is too harsh, senior center Dave Bliss said.

He's one of the few who feels that way. The Bulldogs are entering Dennis Felton's fifth season still looking for a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

"I think everybody obviously wants to make the tournament, expects to make the tournament, but if you can see a considerable increase year-to-year, I don't know how you can say the program is not on track," Bliss said. "If we win 20 games this year and don't make the tournament, it's hard to say that's a failure.

"It's going to be a disappointment if we don't make it. I don't think it's going to be a failure."

Georgia, which was 19-14 overall and 8-8 in the SEC last year, is 58-63 in Felton's first four seasons. Its first national postseason win under Felton came last season in an 88-78 win over Fresno State in the NIT. The first game of the 2007-2008 season is at 9 p.m. today in Stegeman Coliseum against Jacksonville State.

"I think we have a good team," senior point guard Sundiata Gaines said. "The only thing we have to worry about is bringing everybody together and getting them on the same page. We have all the parts. We just have to come together and find a way where everybody fits in and finds their role. From there, there's no telling how good we can be."

There were reasons for the diehards to be hopeful heading into this season but most of the offseason news has been bad, starting with the suspensions of Takais Brown, Mike Mercer and Albert Jackson and extending to the eventual dismissal of Brown.

Brown led the Bulldogs in scoring (14.2 points) and was second in rebounds (5.6) last year. His departure will mean an earlier and longer look at the incoming freshman class, which Felton calls the best of his Georgia tenure. The class is highlighted by 6-foot-8, 270-pound forward Jeremy Price, who has the size to replace Brown if not the experience.

"I expect a lot from Jeremy Price right away," Felton said. "I'm excited about the impact the freshman class is going to have on our program, not only from a talent standpoint but from an attitude standpoint."

Felton started Jeremy Jacob, another freshman forward, in the Bulldogs' only exhibition game, and 6-5 freshman guard Troy Brewer led all the newcomers in scoring in that game with 14.

Gaines will once again start at point for the Bulldogs.

"Our team this year will go as far as Sundiata leads us. It's just that simple," Felton said.

Few positions beyond the point are settled, particularly considering Mercer will miss the first 15 games and Jackson will miss the first nine.

Last year: 19-14 overall, 8-8 SEC

Head coach: Dennis Felton, fifth season (58-63, 100-54 overall in 10 seasons)

Season opener: 9 p.m. today, vs. Jacksonville State, Stegeman Coliseum

Returning stars: G Sundiata Gaines (10.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 4.8 apg), G Billy Humphrey (7.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg), C Dave Bliss (4 ppg, 3.2 rpg) Fresh faces: F Jeremy Price (rated No. 14 power forward in country by, F Jeremy Jacob (first-team all-state in Louisiana before one year at prep school), G Troy Brewer (Played behind Kevin Durant as junior in high school)

Outlook: The Bulldogs set back their rebuilding this year with off-court issues. First it was announced that Takais Brown, Mike Mercer and Albert Jackson had been suspended for a total of 30 games for missing class and academic appointments, and then Brown was dismissed from the team. Those revelations took a lot of steam out of the preseason talk about this team, which should be nearing the end of its rebuilding as head coach Dennis Felton enters his fifth season.

Unless Prince is ready to play right away, which is not unheard of in college basketball, Georgia will not be able to replace Brown's presence in the post. Gaines still will be the most underrated player in the SEC, but the Bulldogs' backcourt still will be average without the dynamic Mercer. An NCAA Tournament big seems unlikely at this point.

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