Georgia has seen this script before.
The Bulldogs carry momentum from the end of one season toward the next and have to cope with higher expectations for the program.
But this season feels much different than two years ago. Georgia believes it has a more solid foundation on which to build success.
“That year (2008) that we won the SEC, a lot of people didn’t expect us to win it,” said senior forward Chris Barnes, whose team opens the season against Mississippi Valley State tonight at 7:30 p.m. at Stegeman Coliseum.
“We shocked the whole nation by winning that. But the next year was kind of a disappointment because we kind of had the same year we had before. This year we should do better because we’ve got all the right pieces. We’ve got pieces that fit together better and I expect us to have a great year.”
Barnes and senior forward Jeremy Price are the only players remaining from Dennis Felton’s team that went from worst to first during the four-day 2008 Southeastern Conference Tournament title run. Expectations and excitement were at their highest ebb when Felton sent the 2008-09 squad to follow up the SEC Tournament success.
But the forward progress didn’t carry over and the Bulldogs reverted to their last-place form. Felton was fired the following January and Mark Fox replaced him in April.
“This year I think everybody on the team is way more confident,” Price said. “We’ve got a lot more energy than we had two years ago. We’ve got good returning guys. We’ve got good new guys. We’re going to have a pretty good year.”
The biggest differences are a different coaching staff and the presence of potential NBA draft picks Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie.
Fox used the 2009-10 season, his first at Georgia, to rebuild confidence. Thompkins and Leslie had standout years and, after flirting with a jump to the pros, returned to campus to form the core of this year’s team, which was picked by SEC media to finish third in the East. Georgia is ranked No. 28 in the Associated Press poll and No. 36 by the coaches.
“It feels good that people think we’re going to be good,” Barnes said. “But we know that at any time, we might slip up and not win a couple of games. We’ve got to stay grounded and have that mindset of, ‘What if we weren’t expected to be good?’ so we’ve got to continue to practice hard and play hard.”
Georgia suffered a setback before the season even started when high ankle sprain knocked Thompkins out for 2-4 weeks. Thompkins was the Bulldogs’ leading scorer (17.7 points per game) and rebounder (8.3 per game) last season, a first-team all-SEC performer and a favorite to be the conference’s player of the year.
Thompkins will definitely miss tonight’s season opener and likely next Tuesday’s game against Colorado. He could miss the Old Spice Classic on Thanksgiving weekend when the Bulldogs will try to build a postseason resume against other NCAA Tournament hopefuls like first-round opponent Notre Dame.
“It’s going to make it more difficult,” Fox said. “Anytime you take the preseason player of the year off of your team, it’s going to make things more challenging. But that doesn’t mean you still can’t accomplish what you want to. We’re going to have to play more efficiently and more intelligently. We’re a man down right now, so we’re going to have to adjust.”
Ironically, the preseason excitement and high expectations have come after modest gains in the won-loss column. Last season, Fox’s first, Georgia finished 14-17 overall and 5-11 in the SEC, but it beat Arkansas 77-64 in the first round of the SEC Tournament. In 2008-09, Felton’s last year, Georgia went 12-20 overall and 3-13 in the SEC. The Bulldogs finished last in the East both years.
“We’re going to be a better all-around team than we were last year,” Leslie said. “We’ve got more players and more pieces to use than we did last year. That’s going to help us a lot. So we’re just looking forward to this year and not thinking about last year.”
Georgia went winless in other teams’ gyms last season and has only one true road win in the last two seasons, a 90-85 victory in Kentucky’s Rupp Arena under interim coach Pete Herrmann in 2009.
Defense has been another point of emphasis in preseason workouts. Last season, Georgia ranked eighth in the SEC in points against (69.4 per game) and field-goal defense (43.1 percent).
“We’ve got to keep doing what we continue to do, to work hard and get better every day and the wins will take care of themselves,” junior point guard Dustin Ware said. “Defense has been a point of emphasis. Defense and winning on the road go hand-in-hand and that’s what we need to improve on.”