From their homes in Atlanta, Georgia men’s basketball guard Kenny Gaines and forward/center Marcus Thornton say they can get to the Georgia Dome within 15 minutes by car.
It’s a similar travel time, depending on traffic, for forward Brandon Morris from his hometown of Lithonia and maybe less for forward Donte’ Williams from Ellenwood.
Guard Charles Mann could get there in a half hour from where he calls home, the Atlanta suburb of McDonough.
Georgia’s starting lineup tonight at the Southeastern Conference tournament in Atlanta is about as homegrown as you can get.
The Bulldogs finished tied for second in the SEC and landed the tournament No. 3 seed with a nucleus of talent from the Atlanta area.
“We just wanted to make a statement that it could be done from the players in Georgia,” said Gaines, a sophomore who has averaged 19.2 points per game over the last six games. “A lot of people think they have to go to other schools and look past Georgia a little bit, but we kind of want to establish that we want to win the state and get some recruits in the future.”
Georgia’s inability to land many of the state’s elite prospects has been a frequent criticism, but coach Mark Fox brought in Williams and Thornton in the 2010 class and Mann, Gaines and Morris two years later. “There’s a lot of good players from the city and we’ve got five of them that have become a good starting lineup for us,” Fox said. “I think that’s great. They’re all going to leave with a degree so I think that’s great, too.”
Georgia’s roster also includes Atlanta area players Taylor Echols and Brandon Young, both walk-ons.
“I definitely take pride in that,” Thornton said. “It’s where I’m from, where I grew up. There’s nothing more to it than that. You obviously want to enjoy playing at home. The game is played in between the lines.”
Georgia (18-12, 12-6 SEC) carries plenty of momentum to the tournament into its quarterfinal game tonight at about 9:30 p.m. against Ole Miss. The Bulldogs, who earned a double-bye, won eight of their final 10 regular season games and hope to continues their recent run at the Georgia Dome.
“We love the location,” Morris said. “We’re hoping that’s going to play to our advantage.”
Williams called it “an unbelievable feeling to be at home for the SEC tournament, especially being the third seed where we’re at right now. We can’t put ourselves in a better position.”
Georgia hasn’t won more than one game in any of its four trips to the SEC tournament under Fox and never made it as far as the semifinals. The Bulldogs need to win three games and get the automatic bid to make the NCAA tournament, bracket experts say.
“We can’t go in there thinking about the NCAA tournament,” Williams said. “With that mind set, we may miss out on the SEC tournament. … We’ve just got to focus on winning on Friday.”
Morris feels “no pressure because we’re not really focused on the NCAAs right now. We’re just focused on winning the next game like we have all season.”
Kentucky’s passionate fan base will surely outnumber Georgia backers even in its home state, but Fox and his players are hoping fans of the red and black show up in force.
“This program has been kind of down lately the last couple of years,” Mann said. “This year has been a really good year for us. We’re not done. We still have a lot more to achieve.”