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October 14, 2008Georgia coach Dennis Felton joked that he's recognized a lot more during his travels around the Southeast than he used to be.
And it has nothing to do with the fact he allowed his mustache to grow back.
During the Bulldogs' miraculous run through the SEC tournament to earn a spot in the NCAAs, Felton's face got plenty of air time as he went from a coach seemingly in his last days at Georgia, to one being hailed as a miracle worker for his leadership in coaching the team to just the second SEC Tournament title in school history.
"When you coach at a great school like Georgia and in the SEC there's already recognition but it was really compounded by winning the SEC championship and what I found was people, and it was not just Georgia fans, who were pulling so hard for us and our players to find a way to pull it off," Felton said. "As far as my career goes it was definitely one of those special times."
The Bulldogs, who begin preseason practice Friday afternoon, certainly hope to keep momentum on their side despite the loss of some key personnel.
Georgia loses point guard Sundiata Gaines (14.8 points per game) and forward Dave Bliss (7.6 ppg) to graduation, but also must find replacements for guard Billy Humphrey (12.2 ppg) who was kicked off the team last spring, and Jeremy Jacob who transferred.
That's the bad news.
The good news is that the Bulldogs welcome a talented freshman class, chocked full of players expected to come in and contribute their first year.
"I'm looking forward to the season. I think we've got a team that will be very different," Felton said. "We're going to be relying on a terrific freshman group that's here, although the face of the team will change dramatically when you talk losing cornerstone guys like Gaines and Bliss.
"But at the same time I'm very excited about our talent and the various pieces that I think can give us a complete kind of team. We think we've got a team that can bring out the best in each other."
Unfortunately, there are some health concerns.
Practice hasn't even begun and the Bulldogs have already lost freshman Ebuka Anayorah for the year due to a stress fracture in his leg. Anayorah was scheduled to have surgery Tuesday to place a rod in his leg and Felton said the former North Gwinnett star will redshirt.
Six-foot-8 freshman Howard "Trey" Thompkins has some concerns of his own.
During the summer Thompkins came down with a stress fracture in his foot. Surgery was not required and the former Wesleyan star was able to heal properly before he suffered an MCL sprain in his left knee three weeks ago.
"Trey was just starting to work back in and we were slowly increasing his activity to bring him back without jeopardizing reinjuring his foot and then he was playing pickup and sprained his MCL," Felton said. "Trey hasn't done anything now for going on three weeks and will miss the beginning of practice with that injury. The little bit we've had him on the court; he's shown the terrific kind of ability we know we're getting in Trey Thompkins.
"He's just extremely polished offensively. He can score from NBA 3-point range on in; he's a really good perimeter shooter, good ball skills, very good low-post skills, and a good rebounder. Trey's going to be a terrific player we just need him to get healthy."
Felton's also looking forward to getting freshman guard Dustin Ware involved in the flow. Ware, who is expected to compete with sophomoreZac Swansey for the starting spot at point guard, averaged 17.2 points and 17.3 assists per game in leading North Cobb Christian to its second straight state title in the Georgia Independent School Association.
Two returnees also had off-season surgery to clean up minor injuries.
"Barnes' injury was actually on his shooting hand, an old injury that was creating ligament issues in his wrist," Felton said. "Chris missed a good piece of the summer while he was in a cast, but when we started school and got in our individual workouts, he started doing everything with his left hand and is actually doing very good. He's probably had two left-handed baskets to ever one he's had right-handed. I'm very proud of his development."
Troy Brewer (2.7 ppg), Corey Butler (3 ppg) also return while guard Ricky McPhee is eligible after sitting out a year following his transfer from Gardner-Webb. True freshman Drazen Zlovaric (6-9, 210) is another versatile player with the ability to play several positions, while Travis Leslie is player Felton said will remind fans of Dominique Wilkins for his high-flying dunking skills.