ATHENS – Charles Mann was stuck in the training room on Tuesday, which was interview day, so it was left to Kenny Gaines, the man he’s been linked with the past four years, to answer an over-arching question.
As they enter the final stretch of their Georgia careers, did he feel the two of them had accomplished everything they set out to at Georgia?
Gaines’ immediate answer: “Absolutely.”
“It’s not over yet,” Gaines added, accurately. “But overall, yeah. Me and Charles sat down and said we wanted to revitalize the program and try to change the program, and for the most part we did.”
That’s inarguable. Gaines and Mann joined a Georgia program coming off a losing season, then over the next three years proceeded to finish nine games over .500 in SEC play (31-22). They gradually improved each of those years, making the NCAA tournament last year.
But the success has stalled this year. So Gaines was asked the natural follow-up: Was this season a step back, and is he worried he’s leaving the program not having continued what they did last year?
“I wouldn’t say that I’m worried. It’s a sense of urgency for me myself to finish strong this year, so we won’t be considered a step back,” Gaines said. “We still have a chance to get to where we want to. It’s just a little tougher of a road. Definitely possible, though.”
“Ask me this question at the end of the year and I’ll be able to give you an answer,” he said.
Four years ago, Gaines and Mann, a pair of three-star guards, were half of Georgia’s four-man signing class. The others were forward Houston Kessler, who redshirted his first year and is now a junior, and Brandon Morris, whose career was star-crossed. Morris started his first two seasons, then was dismissed after a marijuana arrest, and hit more legal trouble last year.
Gaines and Mann, on the other hand, have been starters for the past three years, the core of two 20-win teams. The two have provided stability, scoring and defense in the backcourt.
“They just finished the greatest three-year run in our school’s history in the SEC,” head coach Mark Fox said. “I think they should be very proud of that. They’ve put us in postseason play a couple times. They’re both going to leave with their degrees. I think they obviously have impacted the tradition here. And they should really have a sense of pride in that. And we’re obviously very grateful for the efforts they’ve made.”
But this season has left the question of whether more could have been done, and more could have been accomplished. The hope was they would lead Georgia back into contention for an NCAA bid; instead the Bulldogs are only 15-12 overall, and 8-8 in the SEC, heading into Thursday’s game at South Carolina.
Mann has moved into a more supporting role the past couple years, playing off the ball almost as much as point guard. He broke the school’s record for free throws made, but the combination of new rules and the team around him has made it harder for him to draw fouls. But he’s still been a pillar of the team: The only game he’s missed in his career was against Lipscomb as a freshman.
Gaines has dealt with injuries, most recently a bruise on his shooting hand, which hasn’t caused him to miss any games. He’s had some spectacular games, including last Saturday when he scored 24 points and also shut down Ole Miss star Stefan Moody. But Gaines still ranks third on the team in scoring, while Mann is fourth. The two were surpassed this season by junior J.J. Frazier and sophomore Yante Maten.
Before this season, Gaines and Mann were named to the SEC preseason first-team by the coaches. The last Georgia duo to do that were Travis Leslie and Trey Thompkins in 2010, and they led their team to an NCAA bid.
Of course, Gaines and Mann already did that.
Did they get the main goal checked off last year and not enter this season as hungry?
“I don’t want to say that,” Gaines said. “It’s different personnel that we’re dealing with this year. We have a lot of freshmen, and people play different roles within the starting unit. It just came down to we didn’t get some of those close games. I feel like we would’ve won the majority of those then we’d be sitting in a different position than we are now. But we’re going to be all right. I’m pretty confident in that.”