University of Georgia

Georgia’s basketball team faces crucial opener

ATHENS -- It’s only the first game. It’s not the most important game of the season. It just seems that way, given events of recent years.

Georgia, which begins the season as a legitimate candidate to get to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, has had awful starts to the previous two seasons. Those have included early losses to arch-rival Georgia Tech.

So when Georgia begins this season Friday at Georgia Tech, that would seem as major an indicator as possible.

“The good news is it’s not life-or-death situation,” junior point guard Charles Mann said. “We need a win, and we want to do whatever we need to do to win. ... (But) we could live with the results if we play hard and play well.”

Georgia would be the favorite if recent history weren’t a factor. The Bulldogs have the nucleus back after a 20-win season and were picked to finish fifth in the SEC. The Yellow Jackets have had plenty of turnover after going 16-17 last season and are picked to finish 13th in the ACC.

Given all that, this sets up as a game the Bulldogs have to get in order to capitalize on their late-season run last year. For two straight years, the non-conference season has been their undoing, going 6-6 last year and 6-7 the year before.

But in each of those seasons, and the one before that, the Bulldogs were in transition mode. This year, they return their two leading scorers (Mann and Kenny Gaines) and leading rebounder (Marcus Thornton).

“This is the first time since 2010-11 that we’ve had significant experience return,” Georgia head coach Mark Fox said, citing the last season his team made the NCAA tournament. “So it’s certainly made things smoother in practice; we have a lot of guys who know what they’re doing, not as many guys to teach. Everyone’s going to be in a little different role because certainly we’re not the exact same team we were last year. But there’s a lot of familiarity with what we’re doing. Guys have a lot of confidence in what they’re doing.”

Gaines, the team’s best outside shooting threat, missed about three weeks of practice because of mononucleosis. He has since returned and practiced “quite a bit,” according to Fox and is likely to play, but how much he plays Friday will depend on his condition.

Winning this game would be a big boost. Georgia hasn’t beaten Georgia Tech since that 2010-11 game.

“Since then, we haven’t really been certain about ourselves early in the season, what we wanted to do, what we did well,” Thornton said. “As a result, we struggled early on until we were able to find our identity and ourselves and some confidence. So I think with the experience we have it will be a lot less of a journey.”

Thornton, a fifth-year senior, is the only Georgia player who has experienced the NCAA tournament. He sees similarities between this year’s team and his freshman year, when the nucleus returned, including Trey Thompkins, Travis Leslie and Jeremy Price.

But Thornton was cautious about putting too much into the early part of the season, much less the first game.

“When you talk about the look of a tournament team, they get better throughout the year,” Thornton said. “You’ve gotta build confidence and win games.”

This is the first time in nine seasons that Georgia has opened it season away from home. Fox said he would have preferred to play the Georgia Tech game the Friday before the two schools meet on the football field. That’s his preference every year. This year, the issue was a lack of dates that match up because of other commitments, including tournaments and conference invitational events.

Perhaps it would have been better for Georgia to have some easier games to start the season. But coming off last season and with the experience back, senior Nemana Djurisic said having a tough road opener is no big deal.

“Now we’re settled, and we have experienced guys who know what it takes to win,” Djurisic said. “As soon as we get thrown in the fire against Tech, or any other opponent in the preseason, I think we’ll be able to do the things that we need to do in order to win.”