"They came into a program that was the least popular program in the country at the time," Georgia head coach Dennis Felton said. "They had to be thrown right into the fire and perform under the glare of the bright lights and learn on the run. They have been a big, big part of taking a program off the mat and giving it relevancy."
Gaines and Bliss will be recognized shortly before today's 4 p.m. game against Ole Miss (20-9, 6-9 SEC).
The Bulldogs (13-15, 4-11 SEC) still have a chance to finish somewhere other than the cellar of the SEC's Eastern Division, but it will take a little luck. If Georgia beats the Rebels today and Tennessee beats South Carolina on Sunday, the Bulldogs and Gamecocks will be tied for fifth place in the league, and none of the league's five pre-set tiebreakers would break that deadlock.
In that case, a coin flip will be held at the conference office in Birmingham, Ala., on Sunday afternoon to determine which team plays as the No. 5 seed and which as the No. 6 in next week's SEC Tournament in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. It would be the first time since the conference split into divisions in 1992 that a coin flip was required to determine seeding.
Forcing and winning a coin toss would be about the only good things to happen to the Bulldogs this season. Georgia has lost 10 of its last 12, and its two seniors have virtually no hope of ending their careers in a national tournament.
The first three seasons followed a promising pattern, eight wins in the first year, 15 in the second and 19 in the third. Then came this season, when the dismissals of starters Mike Mercer and Takais Brown torpedoed the season before it began.
"I'm disappointed for (Gaines and Bliss) that we ended up taking a step backward this year after so much progress, but I also think they understand it's more of a bump in the road," Felton said. "I'm disappointed for them not being able to climb up this season, their final season."
Unless Georgia wins the SEC Tournament next weekend, Gaines and Bliss will leave Athens having never played in an NCAA Tournament game, but they will have degrees. Each player will graduate after spring semester. (Bliss will have two, one in political science and one in real estate.)
Mere survival through the last four years should be counted as an achievement. They signed in the same class as Channing Toney and Younes Idrissi, both of whom left the program prematurely, and have a career record of 55-64.
Gaines, who is averaging a career-best 14.5 points this year, will leave as the school's all-time steals leader, and he could move as high as No. 2 in assists. He has 453 assists, 13 shy of second-place Litterial Green. He is the only player in school history to total more than 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 400 assists in a career, and he has been the most indispensable player on the team since his arrival.
"This season probably has punctuated that because we have been so shorthanded, and he has been so forceful in still putting us in position to compete," Felton said. "Our fans have watched us fight through so much adversity this year and seen him be the lead guy. I can't begin to tell you how much feedback I've gotten from fans relative to the admiration for his heart and his toughness and his fight and desire."
Bliss also is scoring at a career pace (7.6 per game), and he has stubbornly held onto his spot in the starting lineup through years when the team's fan base was certain he would be pushed to the side by a more talented newcomer.
"I'm just really, really grateful to them, very proud of their perseverance and their leadership," Felton said. "All the success that we're going to have as a program, we are going to continue to be able to contribute it to their contributions during their time here."