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January 30, 2007ATHENS - As it prepares for its last game of January, Georgia is beginning to look like a team with reason to look forward to March.
Considering the Bulldogs' recent dismal basketball history, the renewed optimism is notable.
With more than a month left in the regular season, Georgia already has matched last season's total of five Southeastern Conference wins. At 13-6 overall, Georgia is just two wins shy of matching last season's overall win total.
In the SEC, where road wins are rare, Georgia could have difficulty continuing that run this week. The Bulldogs have won five of their last six, but the Bulldogs play at Tennessee Wednesday night before visiting Vanderbilt on Saturday.
Georgia is only 1-2 in road conference games.
Georgia, which finished 15-15 overall and 5-11 in the SEC last year, is 5-2 in the conference this season, thanks to five wins in its last six games. In the tough SEC East, however, Georgia is almost lost in the pack.
Though the SEC West has no team with a winning conference record, the East includes front-runner Florida (6-0), while Kentucky and Vanderbilt join the Bulldogs at 5-2.
Georgia coach Dennis Felton says he hopes Sunday's 57-54 win over Louisiana State is an accurate benchmark for progress made by his team. One year ago, LSU crushed Georgia 81-52 in Baton Rouge, giving the Bulldogs their most lopsided loss in a conference game since 1975.
Suddenly, Georgia seems far removed from such embarrassments.
``Certainly I like the fact we've progressed enough to be able to compete at a high level with such consistency,'' Felton said Sunday before remembering that LSU ``beat us by 100 last year.''
``I do think our players are maturing and growing and learning in terms of how to give us the best chance to win.''
In its last eight games, Georgia is 5-3 with losses to Florida, Wisconsin and Alabama, teams ranked first, second and 19th in Monday's Associated Press Top 25.
Georgia led at halftime in the losses to Wisconsin and Florida and led by 15 at halftime before a last-second loss at Alabama.
Since the loss to Alabama, Georgia has taken narrow wins over then-No. 25 Kentucky and, on Sunday, then-No. 21 Louisiana State, helping to knock both teams out of the Top 25.
``Right now Georgia is probably playing as well as anybody in the league,'' Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said Monday. ``They've played some terrific basketball. Not only are they 5-2, but they're 5-2 over some of the premier teams in this league.
``They're a very good team, they shoot the ball very well, and they're very fast and athletic. They're shooting the ball much better than they did last year. Overall, they've really grown up a lot in the past year.''
The Bulldogs still haven't come close to breaking into the Top 25, but they currently rate as a contender for an NCAA tournament berth. Georgia is No. 38 in the latest Collegiate Basketball News Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), and it carries a No. 17 strength of schedule ranking.
The numbers all indicate this is a breakthrough season in the rebuilding process under Felton after the program hit bottom in 2004-05 with an 8-20 record, including a lowly 2-14 mark in SEC games, with only seven scholarship players.
Georgia hasn't played in the NCAA tournament since 2002. That postseason appearance in a 22-10 season under Jim Harrick was vacated as part of NCAA sanctions following Harrick's resignation the following year amid allegations of academic fraud and improper benefits to players.
Georgia doesn't have one standout star, but instead it is winning with strong inside play from Takais Brown and a wave of 3-point shooting perimeter players.
Stukes, one of only two seniors, hit the game-winning 3-point shot at the buzzer against LSU Sunday to lead the Bulldogs with 16 points. Billy Humphrey and Terrance Woodbury also have been high scorers in games this year, making it difficult for defenses to devise schemes to stop any one shooter.
Brown, who played admirably when matched against LSU's 295-pound Glen ``Big Baby'' Davis, could be the difference for the Bulldogs in the stretch run for an NCAA berth.