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February 13, 2008ATHENS -- Sundiata Gaines leads Georgia in almost every meaningful statistic, but even the senior may not be able to lead a continually shrinking roster back to the postseason.
Gaines, a senior from Jamaica, N.Y., ranks among the Bulldogs' most versatile guards of the last 25 years. Vern Fleming and Willie Anderson had better size, but Gaines boasts all-around numbers that are difficult to beat.
If Gaines, known by his teammates as Yata, were a one-dimensional player, it would be impressive enough that he is on his way to leading Georgia in rebounding for the third straight year. That's a notable bragging right for even the tallest of players, but for Gaines (6-1, 205) it's an astonishing feat.
But there's much more to Gaines' game than surprising rebounding skills.
Gaines leads Georgia in scoring (14.0), rebounds (6.3), assists (4.1), steals (1.86), assists-to-turnover ratio (1.72) and minutes played, while ranking among the Southeastern Conference's top 20 in each category.
``He's been a cornerstone guy in our program since the day he arrived,'' said Georgia coach Dennis Felton.
But too many other pieces of the foundation laid by Felton have disappeared:
Felton dismissed Takais Brown, last season's leading scorer, for an unspecified violation of team policy before the season.
Mike Mercer, who was Georgia's second-leading scorer before a knee injury ended his 2006-07 season, was kicked off the team in November for ``being a disruption.''
Center Rashaad Singleton, a 7-foot junior, announced in early January he was leaving the team with plans to transfer to another school.
Starting guard Billy Humphrey was suspended for a minimum of three games last week for underage drinking. It was his second brush with the law and second suspension of the season. A knee injury leaves his return in question even if the suspension is not extended.
Through it all, Gaines continues to raise his game.
Humphrey's suspension led to Gaines moving from point guard to shooting guard, and he scored a career-high 32 points in Saturday's 77-67 loss at Florida. He made 6 of 10 3-point shots in the game while adding nine rebounds, five assists and two steals in a season-high 38 minutes.
Said Florida coach Billy Donovan: ``I thought we played well on defense, but we couldn't find an answer for Gaines.''
But Gaines alone can't stop the losses from mounting.
Georgia, 11-10 overall, is last in the SEC East at 2-6 and has a five-game losing streak entering Wednesday night's home game against South Carolina.
Gaines says he'll volunteer for duty at point guard, shooting guard or any other position as he tries to lead Georgia to a turnaround in the second half of the conference schedule.
``If more and more is expected out of me, I don't have a problem with that, but at the same time you want your team to be as efficient as possible,'' Gaines said Tuesday.
South Carolina coach Dave Odom said Georgia's reliance on Gaines reminds him of the Gamecocks' similar dependance on Tre Kelley last season as ``our primary scorer, primary ball-handler and primary playmaker.''
``They've got Sundiata Gaines,'' Odom said Monday. ``They really put the offensive game in his hands, which they should, because he's one of the leading guards in the league and I think the best defensive guard in our league.''
Gaines and senior center Dave Bliss are the veterans of Felton's rebuilding project.
One year ago, it seemed the program had turned a corner. Georgia finished 19-14, including 8-8 in the SEC, and advanced to the NIT's Sweet 16.
Now Gaines says he fears the progress made on the court and in rebuilding the reputation of the program is in jeopardy.
``It definitely takes a toll because the program was moving in the right direction, working up the ladder,'' Gaines said. ``Losing those players, and having players get in trouble, definitely set us back, for the program and also for myself.
``People are going to start to look at the program as maybe it's not the right people or not good kids with good character. It's not necessarily true but at the same time when you keep making mistakes after mistakes, that's all people can do is make that assumption.''
Added Gaines: ``I'd say as a program we've come a long way but we still have a lot we have to improve on to clean up the whole entire image.''
Gaines has carried more than his share of the load. He's taking 20 hours this semester and is on pace to graduate in May.
Gaines' busy schedule forced Felton to schedule Tuesday practices at 7 p.m. this semester, following the senior's last class.
``It's definitely not easy,'' Gaines said. ``I think at the end of the day it makes me more of a tough person.''
Gaines already has proved his toughness on the court with his scoring, steals, rebounds and leadership. Is the load too heavy?
``Not necessarily,'' he said. ``I just know what type of player I am. I'm an all-around player. I try to do everything on a statistical level in the boxscore.''
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