Thornton keeps level head as UGA prepares to take on No. 7 Florida

Marcus Thornton is keeping a level head about his increased contributions to the Georgia basketball team after being unable to even get on the court a year ago at this time.

The Bulldogs are a surprising 2-0 in Southeastern Conference play heading into their game tonight at No. 7 Florida and the redshirt junior is a big reason why even without big offensive numbers.

“We need him,” guard Charles Mann said. “He’s finally healthy and since he’s healthy he’s feeling good and we need him to play the way he’s been playing to be successful.”

In two SEC games, Thornton leads the SEC with 4.0 blocks per game and is tied for ninth in rebounding with 7.0 per game.

It’s an encouraging sign for a player named Georgia’s Mr. Basketball in 2010 out of Westlake High School in Atlanta whose college career had been derailed by injuries. Thornton underwent arthroscopic surgery to his right knee in December, 2012, his third knee surgery at Georgia, and ended up getting a medical redshirt.

“I’m somewhat pleased,” Thornton said. “I still have a long way to go. There’s much more that I could be doing to contribute on and off the court.”

Georgia coach Mark Fox, whose team is 8-6 overall, said Thornton deserves success after all he’s been through with his knee injuries. Thornton didn’t play an SEC game last season and missed the first three SEC games in 2012 after another scope to his right knee.

“We don’t win without him,” Fox said. “I think he was underappreciated before with his defense and rebounding and I think (against Alabama) you see how valuable he is.”

Thornton would like to finish more around the rim. He says he’s still hesitant in certain parts of his game.

He went 2 of 9 from the field Saturday against Alabama and finished with nine points, but filled up the stat sheet elsewhere with a career-high five blocks and a team-high eight rebounds in a 66-58 win against the Crimson Tide.

“Thank God we’re on the same team so I don’t have to worry about seeing him at the rim or nothing,” Mann said.

“I thought he really impacted the game with his energy and his effort,” Alabama coach Anthony Grant said on Monday. “Being a veteran guy, I think he brings that toughness that you want and I thinks he understands what he’s got to do to help that team be successful. …His physicality, his interior defense, his shot-blocking ability, his athleticism really impacted the game.”

The 6-foot-8, 235-pound Thornton has played small forward, power forward and center during his career, and Fox has even matched up against a shooting guard before.

“I try to spearhead defensively what we do,” said Thornton.

He’s doing that now making his presence felt in the low post by swatting away shots.

Thornton watched from the bench during SEC play last season, but said he always thought that he would be able to come back after rehabbing from his latest surgery.

“I’m just thankful, Lord willing, that I’m able to play 31 minutes (against Alabama) or whatever the case may be,” said Thornton, averaging 6.7 points and 4.9 rebounds per game with 18 blocks this season.

Georgia took it “extremely slow,” in Thornton’s recovery, Fox said.

Thornton rehabbed with director of sports medicine Ron Courson at the Butts-Mehre building “to get some consistency in his recovery,” Fox said.

Thornton said Courson was instrumental in helping him get “to where I’m pretty much 100 percent for the most part.”

Only senior Donte’ Williams has more than Thornton’s 40 career starts for Georgia

“I don’t think we ever doubted he would be back,” Fox said. “It’s just nice to have him back. …I think he’s still knocking rust off and probably will continue to for a while. It’s been a while since he’s played a lot of SEC games so it’s going to take him some time to get comfortable again, but it’s good to see him coming back.”

Note: Mann was named SEC Player of the Week after averaging 20 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists in wins over Missouri and Alabama last week. It was the first time a Georgia player got the honor since Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on Feb. 4, 2013. “I just want to keep it going and help my team win,” Mann said.

GEORGIA AT FLORIDA
WHEN/WHERE: 7 p.m. today/O’Connell Center, Gainesville, Fla.
TV/RADIO: ESPNU/The Ref 960-AM
RECORDS: Georgia is 8-6, 2-0 SEC; No. 7 Florida is 13-2, 2-0 SEC
PROBABLE STARTERS: Georgia – G Charles Mann (So., 6-5, 210, 14.1 ppg, 2.9 apg); G Kenny Gaines (So., 6-3, 195, 12.2 ppg, 2.4 rpg); F Brandon Morris (Jr., 6-7, 215, 9.2 ppg, 3.6 rpg; F Marcus Thornton (RJr., 6-8, 235, 6.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg); F Donte Williams (Sr., 6-9, 225, 6.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg). Florida– G Scottie Wilbekin (Sr., 6-2, 176, 12.9 ppg, 3.7 apg); G Michael Frazier II (So., 6-4, 199, 11.9 ppg, 3.5 rpg); F Dorian Finney-Smith (R.So., 6-8, 212, 10.8 ppg, 8.0 rpg); F Will Yeguete (Sr., 6-8, 230, 5.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg); C Patric Young (Sr., 6-9, 240, 10.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg).
SERIES: Florida leads 108-99. The Gators have won 11 straight against Georgia at home.
LAST MEETING: The Gators cruised past Georgia 64-47 on Jan. 23, 2013 in Athens. The Gators ran out to an 11-0 lead and led 28-15 at the half. The Gators shot 52.7 percent for the game.
SEASON AT A GLANCE: Georgia is 2-0 in the SEC for the first time in 12 seasons and has now won five of its last seven after a 1-4 start to the season. The Bulldogs are coming off a 66-58 home win against Alabama on Saturday. Mann and Gaines each scored 22. Florida, an Elite Eight team the past three seasons, has won seven straight, including an 84-82 overtime win at Arkansas Saturday after beating South Carolina by 16 to start off SEC play. Its only losses were by a point at UConn on Dec. 2 and by six at Wisconsin on Nov. 12.
NOTEWORTHY: Florida leading scorer Casey Prather, who missed the Arkansas game with a bruised knee, won’t play against Georgia, coach Billy Donovan told reporters in Gainesville. The 6-foot-6, 212-pound senior averages 17.0 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. “They’ve got a lot of weapons,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “His injury doesn’t leave them empty-handed.” Finney-Smith, a transfer from Virginia Tech, scored 22 points and had 15 rebounds for the Gators….Florida can set a school-record by winning its 25th straight home game. …Wilbekin came off the bench against Arkansas after spraining an ankle against South Carolina last week….Mann is the top scorer in the SEC in league play with 20.0 points per game. …Frazier is sixth nationally with a 48.1 3-point percentage. …This is the only regular season meeting between the teams this season. Florida won’t play in Athens for the first time since 1963.

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