Bulldogs Beat

Jason Butt: Kenny Gaines, Charles Mann have changed perception of Georgia basketball

Jason Butt

jbutt@macon.com

Georgia senior guards Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines celebrate after win over Alabama.
Georgia senior guards Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines celebrate after win over Alabama.

Over the past four years, Georgia hasn't become an elite program or an SEC title contender. But to ignore the growth and strides the program has made thanks to its two seniors would be foolish.

Kenny Gaines and Charles Mann arrived at Georgia with the program two years removed from an at-large appearance in the NCAA Tournament. But the two stars from that team who Dennis Felton recruited and starred under Mark Fox, Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie, bolted for the NBA prematurely -- a move in hindsight that turned out poorly for both players.

Fox has long been accurate that the Bulldogs were not in a position to absorb that kind of loss at the time. They were still rebuilding with a couple of stars to work around.

But with Thompkins and Leslie leaving, Fox recruited Gaines and Mann to come in and help create the vision he held for his program.

On Saturday, Gaines and Mann, which have seen Georgia gain much better respectability in the SEC, played their final regular-season game. A lot has changed under their leadership, even if the program hasn't reached the heights it would like to eventually get to. And the Bulldogs have these two seniors to thank for that.

"I’m going to miss it here, the fans, the environment," Mann said following Georgia’s 70-63 win over Alabama on Saturday, which also served as Senior Day. "It’s a bittersweet feeling."

Georgia topped Alabama 70-63 during Gaines' last games in Stegeman Coliseum.

Historically, Georgia has never had a fan base to get too excited over basketball success. It hurts that the only time in recent history that Stegeman Coliseum was absolutely rocking on a consistent basis was during the Jim Harrick years, with the program violating NCAA rules and leading to scandal. 

Georgia was in a weird spot when Gaines and Mann arrived, given it had already reached the NCAA Tournament and still needed to build a team from the ground up.

After the tourney appearance in 2011, Georgia went 15-17 the following year, with five-star and future lottery pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on the roster. A year later, in Gaines and Mann's first year during the 2012-13 season, Georgia again went 15-17 with Caldwell-Pope declaring for the NBA draft.

As sophomores, with help from big men Nemanja Djurisic and Marcus Thornton, the Bulldogs improved to finish 20-14 and appear in the NIT. Last year, the two guards were a part of an NCAA Tournament team that featured only players Fox recruited. Neither Gaines or Mann possesses the next-level talent Caldwell-Pope has, evidenced by his lottery pick status. But the progression Georgia has made with both Gaines and Mann leading the way has been undeniable.

"I feel Charles and I did a pretty good job coming in and doing what we said we were going to do," Gaines said. "Our second year into being here we made it to the NIT. The next year we made it to the NCAA Tournament. There was a progression every year. We did our thing."

Georgia topped Alabama 70-63 during Mann's last games in Stegeman Coliseum.

This was supposed to be the year Georgia built upon the success with Gaines and Mann and easily made the NCAA Tournament without having to sweat out Selection Sunday. 

That won't be the case, and there's a legitimate line of thinking that Georgia has to win the SEC Tournament to get into the NCAA Tournament. Gaines admitted he believes this, although Fox thinks that a couple of wins in Nashville could punch a ticket.

Regardless of where Georgia ends up at the conclusion of the SEC Tournament, and regardless of what anyone thinks should occur in the future with the program, Gaines and Mann have helped elevate Georgia's perception as a program. No one thinks of Georgia as a bottom-feeder anymore. 

It may not be close to Kentucky's level or on a level where it can have a season like Texas A&M has enjoyed this season. But the two senior guards have helped provide the needed stepping stone, with Fox and the returning and incoming players being the ones to push the team to new heights.

"I just hope we did everything we wanted to do," Mann said. "We laid it all out there on the line. The next guys coming in, the guys already in the locker room, we’re passing the torch. It’s on them to bring this program to another level."

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