ATHENS - Georgia basketball was awash in positive news.
Dennis Felton's program has improved from 8-20 in 2005 to 15-15 in 2006 to 19-14 and a spot in the NIT last season. Season ticket sales were up 25 percent, the biggest jump in five years, thanks in part to a strong response from students. Also, the team has moved into its new $30 million practice facility.
Until last month, Georgia looked like a veteran team ready to make a move in the Southeastern Conference.
Then forward Takais Brown, the Bulldogs' top returning scorer and most productive inside player in recent years, was dismissed from the team. Guard Mike Mercer, a South Gwinnett grad who trailed only Brown on the list of returning scorers, was suspended for the first 15 games. Forward Albert Jackson, a top backup and possible starter, is suspended for six games.
Before his dismissal, Brown also was included in the suspensions for a violation of the university's new attendance policy for student-athletes. Brown scored 14.2 points per game last season.
Felton, attempting to maintain the positive momentum from last season's winning record, said Georgia now has sufficient depth to keep winning in the tough SEC Eastern Division.
Still, the departure of Brown and the suspensions of Mercer and Jackson are big hits which place an unexpected burden on a five-man freshman class.
'Some guys have come to the conclusion that they have no choice but to play early and play a lot of minutes and they have to be ready to pick up some of the slack,' said guard Billy Humphrey, who joins point guard Sundiata Gaines and center Dave Bliss as the only returning starters.
Humphrey, a Dacula grad, said the players were still adjusting to the suspensions when Felton announced the dismissal of Brown.
'Yeah, it kind of came out of nowhere,' Humphrey said. 'It did hurt. He was our best scoring post player. He left big shoes to fill.'
The team lost only one senior starter, guard Levi Stukes, from last year's team.
Until Mercer can play, Gaines, who averaged 10.5 points per game, is the only remaining player who scored in double figures last season.
With Brown and Mercer, this would have been a veteran team. Now it will be another young group, with such freshmen as guard Zac Swansey and forwards Jeremy Price and Chris Barnes expected to play.
'The younger players are going to have a major role on the team,' Gaines said. 'They are going to be the difference for the team this year.'
Gaines is the team leader and most complete player. He's only 6-foot-1 but led the team with 5.7 rebounds and 4.8 assists last season.
Swansey is expected to play behind Gaines at point guard.
Mercer is expected to eventually join Gaines in the backcourt. Mercer suffered a season-ending injury to his right knee on Feb. 10. Georgia was only 5-5 after the injury.
Until Mercer's return, the choices at shooting guard and small forward include Humphrey, Terrance Woodbury, Corey Butler and freshmen Troy Brewer and Jeremy Jacob.
Bliss and junior Rashaad Singleton will be the only experienced inside players for the first three games. Jackson's six-game suspension could provide an opening for Barnes (6-7, 250) and Price (6-8, 270) to win spots in the playing rotation.
Price averaged 14.4 points and 10.5 rebounds for Columbia High in Decatur as a senior. Barnes averaged 20.1 points, 10 rebounds and 5.1 blocks at Riverdale.
Felton was excited about the expected impact from the freshmen even before the dismissal of Brown for the undisclosed violation of team rules.
'We are going to enjoy more depth and talent,' Felton said. 'We are finally not forcing players into roles and letting them mold into their roles.'
Humphrey said the freshmen are backing up Felton's vote of confidence.
'Even with losing a few guys, I still anticipate there will be a strong supporting cast behind the starting lineup,' Humphrey said. 'We do lose the athleticism of Mike and the ability of (Brown) and Albert, but eventually I think (the freshmen) can make up for it.'
Humphrey says he is looking forward to Jackson (6-10, 250) having a possible breakout season after his six-game suspension. Jackson missed the last six games last season with a shoulder injury but had moments where he flashed potential to possibly earn a starting job.
'I'm getting excited about Albert,' Humphrey said. 'He's playing with a lot of excitement. Luckily he only has six games. I'll be excited when he gets back.'
Mercer can't come back at the earliest until after the start of the SEC schedule and will miss games against Gonzaga, Georgia Tech and the conference opener at Mississippi State.
SideBar: GEORGIA GLANCE
Coach: Dennis Felton, 58-63 in fifth season at Georgia, 158-117 overall.
Opener: Friday, Jacksonville State, 7:30 p.m., Athens.
Last season: 19-14 overall, 8-8 Southeastern Conference (fifth in SEC East).
Starters returning: G Sundiata Gaines, 6-1, Jr., 10.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 4.8 assists; G Billy Humphrey, 6-2, Jr., 7.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg; C Dave Bliss, 6-10, Sr., 4.0 ppg, 3.2 rpg.
Other key players: G Mike Mercer, 6-4, Jr., 13.6 ppg (suspended for first 15 games), G Terrance Woodbury, 6-7, Jr., 7.3 ppg, 3.4 rpg, F-C Albert Jackson, 6-10, So., 2.2 ppg, 2.2 rpg (suspended for first six games), C Rashaad Singleton, 7-0, So. (3.3 ppg, 3.0 rpg).
Key losses: F Takais Brown, the team's leading returning scorer, was dismissed from the team for a violation of team policy; G Levi Stukes, F Steve Newman.
Top newcomers: G Zac Swansey, 6-1, Fr., F Jeremy Jacob, 6-7, Fr., F Chris Barnes, 6-7, Fr., G Troy Brewer, 6-5, Fr., F Jeremy Price, 6-8, Fr.
Big question: Will the dismissal of Brown and the suspensions of Mercer and Jackson derail the steady progress made by the team, which has advanced from 8-20 in 2005 to 15-15 two years ago to 19 wins and the NIT last season?