Ron Jirsa is thumbing through a stack of faxes and letters of
encouragement he received last year, his first as the Bulldogs'
coach. As Jirsa reads aloud sundry platitudes and Biblical
proverbs, he concedes that his mountain of missives does not
represent a full accounting of the correspondence that landed on
his desk. "I only keep the good stuff," he says.
He recalls one particularly nasty letter he received last
January, when the Bulldogs were in the midst of a five-game
losing streak. "Man, it was horrible," says Jirsa, who had been
given the top job the previous May when Tubby Smith left to
coach Kentucky. "A few days later I got another one from the
same guy, and I told my assistant, 'Sandi, don't even give me
these. They're too tough.'"
The Bulldogs would recover from their sluggish start to reach
the semifinals of the NIT. With four starters back from that
team, including Smith's son G.G., a talented senior point guard,
and Jumaine Jones, one of the nation's top freshmen a year ago,
Georgia enters the season as the leading candidate to end
Kentucky's stranglehold on the SEC crown.
How formidable a threat the Dawgs will be to the 'Cats depends
largely on Jones. Displaying power and athleticism reminiscent
of early '80s Georgia star Dominique Wilkins, the 6'7" forward
last season became the first freshman since 1984-85 to lead the
Bulldogs in scoring (14.7 points per game) and rebounding (8.5).
After playing for the U.S. team in the Goodwill Games, where he
improved his outside shooting touch, Jones should be a more
potent offensive weapon this year.
His teammates, though, must assume a greater offensive role.
Centers Robb Dryden and Eric DeYoung, both 7-footers, need to
relieve Jones of some of the inside-scoring burden he shouldered
a year ago. Smith is a much-improved shooter, but with Adrian
Jones out for the year with a broken bone in his right foot,
there isn't much backcourt depth.
Having survived his first year as head coach, Jirsa is
optimistic as he begins the new season. "The second time around
is always easier," he says. If it's not, Sandi, remember: Only
the good stuff.
COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO JUMAINE MAN Shades of alumnus Dominique, the dynamic Jones is one to watch. [Jumaine Jones in game]
POS. HT. CLASS KEY STAT
SF [**]Michael Chadwick 6'4" Sr. 8.7 ppg
PF [**]Jumaine Jones 6'7" So. 14.7 ppg
C Eric DeYoung 7'0" Sr. 2.7 rpg*
SG [**]Ray Harrison 6'3" Sr. 11.9 ppg
PG [**]G.G. Smith 5'11" Sr. 13.5 ppg
'97-98 record: 20-15 Final rank (coaches' poll): unranked
[**]Returning starter *'96-97 rpg (redshirt in '97-98)