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Felton, UGA quickly look to next season.


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Felton, UGA quickly look to next season

Replacing Gaines, Bliss won't be easy, but coach is enthusiastic about returning cast

By CHIP TOWERS

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Published on: 03/22/08

Washington Georgia's players hadn't even changed out of their uniforms and into their dress clothes when coach Dennis Felton made a pronouncement at the Verizon Center on Thursday.

"As of now, we have a new team," Felton said shortly after the Bulldogs' 73-61 loss to Xavier in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. "This year's team is over with."

He said it not in anger or disgust but in enthusiastic anticipation. Georgia loses a load of leadership with the loss of senior co-captains Dave Bliss and Sundiata Gaines. But Felton clearly believes replacements can be found within the ranks of returning players and that the Bulldogs can build on this year's late-season success.

"We go right to work. We go right to work," the Bulldogs' fifth-year coach said, repeating the phrase for emphasis. "We have a terrific core of players returning who have incredible upsides, and we're not wasting any time getting right to work on developing new leadership."

From whom it will come is another question.

In Bliss and Gaines, the Bulldogs' had a gold mine of leadership. Bliss was an honors student with a workhorse attitude, and Gaines led by example and was a fighter extraordinaire.

Felton hopes to find similar traits in the nine lettermen who return. That group will be joined by at least three incoming freshmen and as many as five newcomers overall. Georgia signed Howard Thompkins, Dustin Ware and Drazen Zlovaric in November and hope to add one or two more players in the spring period.

For leadership, the Bulldogs will look first to their three senior guards: Corey Butler, Billy Humphrey and Terrance Woodbury.

"You walk away with a bitter feeling in your gut," Butler said after Thursday's game, in which Georgia blew an 11-point lead in the last 16 minutes. "It's hard to get away from this feeling that you should have had something but you let it go. But we're going to come back strong; we're going to come back fighting."

Humphrey says the Dogs' goal will be not only to defend their SEC tournament title and return to the NCAA tournament but to go further.

"We always set the bar high for ourselves," said Humphrey, who had 12 points in 36 minutes against Xavier. "We're not going to settle for less. We're definitely going to have a challenge trying to repeat what we did this year. We made history. Hopefully our young guys will be ready to do it again."

Woodbury proved he could become an on-court leader. The 6-foot-7 wing averaged 15.8 points and 5.4 rebounds and shot 52 percent from 3-point range in the postseason.

"The way we ended up the season, we have to be proud of ourselves," Woodbury said. "We won a championship; regardless if it was a national championship or a league championship, we won a championship, and nobody can take that away from us."

Exactly from whom leadership comes is unimportant to Felton. He said it also could emerge from within this season's five freshmen, two of whom point guard Zac Swansey and forward Jeremy Price played in every game.

"I just want our returning players to be ready to lead," Felton said. "I want them to lead themselves this spring and be ready to lead our new guys and take them under their wings when they arrive."

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