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Georgia photo/Chamberlain Smith / Georgia freshman star Anthony Edwards has been playing in front of sellout crowds this winter inside Stegeman Coliseum, including Tuesday night's 78-69 loss to Kentucky.

A Southeastern Conference university that once produced 93,000 spectators for a spring football game is developing a second passion.

Having the potential top pick of this summer's NBA draft has a way of doing that.

While Georgia's football program has been a revolving door in recent weeks with elite talent leaving and arriving, the basketball Bulldogs have been a hit at the turnstiles in Tom Crean's second season as coach. Georgia is averaging 9,331 fans per game through nine contests this season inside the 10,523-seat Stegeman Coliseum, and the Bulldogs have a chance to surpass the program mark of 9,857 set during Jim Harrick's dazzling but tumultuous final season in 2002-03.

"The energy has been fantastic, and the passion of the fans has been very good," Crean said. "There is no doubt that they have helped us immensely. There is no way we get through the SMU game (Dec. 20) in double-overtime without the fans. We had to come behind against Georgia Southern (Dec. 23), and the fans were a huge part of that.

"The interest is definitely there. The support is there, and the passion inside the arena is really building. It's been fun."

Georgia, which has sold out five of its eight remaining home games, is raking in the crowds despite Crean's 2-17 record in conference contests. The Bulldogs actually set a record for total attendance last season despite their 2-16 run through SEC play, and the additions of five-star talent Anthony Edwards and four more heralded freshmen have resulted in a much more competitive team that won at No. 9 Memphis last Saturday.

The most recent packed house in Stegeman transpired Tuesday night, when Georgia hosted No. 14 Kentucky. The Bulldogs (9-4) built a nine-point lead late in the first half, but John Calipari's Wildcats (11-3) were stout down the stretch and pulled away for a 78-69 win.

In a rare occurrence, Kentucky had the more veteran team, as a whopping 10 Georgia players experienced their first SEC game.

"Not winning doesn't really take away from the atmosphere," Georgia fourth-year guard Jordan Harris said afterward. "We had a fantastic crowd. This is the best environment I have played in here, and I'm a senior. I want to thank the fans personally. They really showed up and had an impact tonight. We just let the game slip away."

Said Crean: "We had such an electric atmosphere, and we've got to continue to have that. It's part of building the program. We can't just have it when Kentucky comes. Our atmosphere did everything it could to help us, but it couldn't get us a rebound, unfortunately."

Edwards has provided an immediate boost in highlights and talent this season, ranking third among all SEC scorers with 18.7 points per game. The 6-foot-5, 225-pounder from Atlanta was the No. 1 hoops signee nationally in this past recruiting cycle, according to 247Sports.com, and he was second only to James Wiseman of Memphis on the 247Sports composite rankings.

Georgia's signing class also contained Christian Brown, Toumani Camara, Jaykwon Walters and Sahvir Wheeler, giving the Bulldogs five top-100 players. That matched the number of top-100 players Georgia landed in the previous 13 years.

The Bulldogs are young and undersized compared to almost every SEC counterpart, but the star of the show insists better results are right around the corner for a program that hasn't been credited with an NCAA tournament win since Tubby Smith's Sweet 16 run in 1996.

"Our fans can look forward to us being more of a team, playing better team defense and winning more games," Edwards said. "We just took a tough loss, but we are going to come back and be better."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

 

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