A tough schedule and undersized lineup could not Georgia's surge to the top of the SEC
EVERY TIME Georgia breaks from a huddle during practices and games, the Bulldogs say, "Believe!" Such a positive expression might seem like a perfectly reasonable explanation why Georgia has been perhaps the nation's most surprising team, but the Bulldogs' second-year coach Jim Harrick isn't eager to embrace that theory. Some things, he knows, defy explanation. "We said 'Believe' last year too, and it didn't help us much," Harrick says. "I thought we would be better, but I never dreamed we'd be this good."
Georgia, which finished last season with its worst record in 23 years (10-20, 3-13 in the SEC), is making believers out of a lot of people. It claimed sole possession of first place in the SEC's East Division with a thrilling 77-75 double-overtime victory over No. 6 Tennessee last Saturday. The Bulldogs, who don't start a player taller than 6'7", were down by 16 points late in the first half and trailed during the last two minutes of each extra session. "We worked too hard to lose," said 6-foot junior guard D.A. Layne, who played 46 minutes and scored 24 points, both game highs.
Layne knows all too well what it's like to suffer for this program. In 1999, following his freshman year, he saw five players graduate, one (sophomore Jumaine Jones) enter the NBA draft and the coach, Ron Jirsa, get fired. "I felt like I was here all by myself," he says. Layne led the Bulldogs in scoring (18.3 points per game) as a sophomore, but he was the their lone perimeter threat. Though his scoring average was down slightly through Sunday (16.5), Layne and the Bulldogs are much more dangerous this season with the addition of Ezra Williams, a 6'4" swingman who is Georgia's second-leading scorer (12.1), and 6-foot freshman point guard Rashad Wright, whose steadying presence is reflected in his stats from the Tennessee game: 1 for 3 from the field, four assists and one turnover in 34 minutes.
Georgia's season came perilously close to falling apart in late December and early January, when the Bulldogs slogged through the toughest schedule in the nation. During a Jan. 13 game at Ole Miss, the Dawgs, who had lost four of their previous six, started bickering after falling behind 14-2. Harrick lectured his players at halftime on the need to encourage one another, and Georgia kept chipping away in the second half to rally for a 70-66 win. "We had built a lot of frustration going into that game," Layne says. "It took a big win for us to snap out of it."
With a 13-7 record, Georgia finally cracked the rankings, at No. 25 on Monday. The Bulldogs are closing in on an NCAA tournament bid, and their future looks bright, given the proven ability of Harrick, who won the NCAA title at UCLA in 1995, to recruit and develop talent.
Harrick was delighted by the scene he encountered when he walked into the locker room on Saturday. Instead of celebrating jubilantly, his players were exhausted. "I've tried to teach them that it's the greatest feeling to walk into that locker room, dying, with a W," Harrick said later. "I don't think they could have played another minute. They were completely drained, but they were happy."
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Rising Star at Centenary
Centenary's basketball legacy is confined mostly to a trivia question: What college did Robert Parish play for? Ronnie McCollum concedes he "thought it was a joke" when he received his first recruiting call from Centenary, a small liberal arts college in Shreveport, La., during his senior year at Fayette County High in Fayette, Ala. "I knew Robert Parish's game," McCollum says, "but I didn't know he played there."
McCollum, a senior guard, may never be more famous than Parish, but he's on pace to surpass the Chief as the No. 2 man on the Gents' career scoring list The nation's scoring leader, with a 28.4-point average through Sunday, McCollum was only 58 points from Parish's career total of 2,334; Centenary's leader is Willie Jackson, who scored 2,535 points from 1980-81 to 1983-84.