Georgia boosted by tight road wins

Ranked 16th in the nation in the preseason, Georgia's basketball team entered its schedule with a swagger.

ATHENS, Ga. - Ranked 16th in the nation in the preseason, Georgia's basketball team entered its schedule with a swagger.

After a humbling 1-3 start, the Bulldogs now are grateful just to be back to .500 after hard-fought road wins over Colorado and California.

"We never thought 3-3 would sound good,'' forward Jarvis Hayes said as Georgia had its first home practice Wednesday since last week's road trip.

"Getting those two wins was real important. Getting off to a 1-3 start, no one expected us to do that.''

Georgia beat Colorado 71-70 Dec. 3 and then outlasted California 78-73 in overtime Saturday.

After having Monday and Tuesday off to focus on final exams, Georgia was back in practice Wednesday without guard Mike Dean.

Dean, a sophomore from Rome, announced Tuesday he is leaving the team to seek a transfer, leaving the Bulldogs without one of its top three backup players.

Dean, averaging 10 minutes per game, was dissatisfied with his playing time.

"I don't think (Dean) gave himself a full opportunity to see what he can do,'' Coach Jim Harrick said Wednesday. " The biggest thing for a (young player) is he has to have faith and patience, faith in your ability as a player and patience on the opportunity to come.''

Added Harrick: "As the season went along, he would have had more and more opportunities.''

Harrick said the departure of Dean may leave more opportunity for Fred Gibson to play a significant role if Gibson joins the team after the wide receiver's football season ends with the Jan. 1 Sugar Bowl.

Harrick said he has not talked with Gibson to confirm the sophomore's intent to play basketball for a second straight season. Gibson earned more playing time than expected when he joined the basketball team in January last season as a freshman.

Gibson could give the team another wing player next month, but the more pressing issue is the hope that Steve Thomas can return to the team next week.

Academically ineligible for fall semester, Thomas will take his last final examination Monday. Harrick said he probably will know Tuesday if the team's tallest and most physical player will be back for the Southeastern Conference schedule.

Last year, the 6-foot-8, 240-pound Thomas started 26 games and averaged 8.4 points and 6.4 rebounds.

If he regains his eligibility, Thomas could be in uniform for Georgia's home game next Wednesday night against South Alabama. But Georgia must play one more game Sunday at 1:30 p.m. in Atlanta's Philips Arena against Gonzaga with no player taller than 6-foot-7.

"When he gets back, that will mean (Harrick) won't  have to put me on 7-footers all the time,'' said the 6-foot-5 Wilkins, who has played everywhere from the post to point guard in the first six games.

Added Wilkins: "We definitely need (Thomas). We definitely miss him.''

Wilkins, Chris Daniels and Jarvis Hayes have given Georgia a front line with the 6-foot-7 Daniels as the tallest player.

Wilkins, a transfer from North Carolina State, said he could not blame Dean for seeking a transfer.

"If he wasn't happy, trust me, I know by experience, he wasn't going to play well anyway,'' Wilkins said. "I wish he didn't feel like he needed to go, but I wish him luck.''

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