Drama ends with Bulldogs dancing

semerson@macon.comMarch 12, 2011 

ATHENS -- After 48 hours of nervous helplessness, the players and coaches of the Georgia men’s basketball team met uneasily in their locker room Sunday night. They settled in for the NCAA tournament selection show, having spent two days hearing they might be out or might be in, but if they were in it wouldn’t be by much.

“Everybody was tense, sitting in our locker room, biting fingers, looking at each other like, ‘Oh man, we don’t know what’s gonna happen,’ ” junior forward Trey Thompkins said.

The tension turned to surprised joy a short time into the show as Georgia was revealed to not only be in the NCAA tournament for the first time in three years, but a No. 10 seed, higher than predicted by most experts.

“The way we were jumping around, it seemed like we won the national championship,” guard Travis Leslie said.

It would take six wins for the Bulldogs to actually do that. But that’s better than seven, which is what would’ve been required had they been one of the NCAA’s final four at-large selections.

Instead Georgia (21-11) got in rather easily, as the committee apparently heavily weighed RPI rank (Georgia was 47 on Sunday and strength of schedule (Georgia’s was 40th).

Gene Smith, the selection committee chairman, mentioned road record several times on a conference call. So Georgia’s 9-7 record away from home, including 7-4 when taking away neutral sites, helped its case.

The Bulldogs’ destination will be Charlotte, N.C., where they will meet Washington, the Pac-10 tournament champion, on Friday at a time to be announced Monday. The winner most likely will face No. 2 seed North Carolina.

Georgia has never played Washington in men’s basketball. But the Bulldogs’ head coach knows the school well.

Mark Fox met his wife, Cindy, at Washington. Cindy Fox is a Washington graduate who grew up in Yakima. She worked at the school for a decade as the athletics department’s director of marketing and promotion.

And Fox’s closest friend outside of basketball is the Huskies’ volleyball coach. But the second-year Georgia head coach preferred the focus be on his players’ reaction after the team earned the program’s first at-large berth in nine years.

“I don’t think I’ve been that happy in a long time,” Thompkins said. “Just seeing our whole team jump around and throw stuff in the locker room. Hug each other as much as we did. That was a blessing, just to see our name that we’re in the tournament.”

The reaction was partly a result of the two days of uncertainty. Many experts had the Bulldogs missing the field, especially after Friday’s overtime loss to Alabama, itself a bubble team that didn’t make it.

At a minimum, it seemed the Bulldogs would be relegated to one of the four play-in games, to be held Tuesday and Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio. The coaches spent Saturday studying about 15 teams in case they had to play one of them Tuesday.

“Nerve-wracking,” Thompkins said, describing the 48 hours after the loss to Alabama. “I was at home with my family (Saturday), and they were just asking me if we would be in, and I really had no answer for them. Lost a little sleep about it, but I can sleep tonight.”

Guard Gerald Robinson said it was “the longest two days of my life.”

Forward Connor Nolte -- whom Fox had appointed as the team “bracketologist” several weeks ago -- was getting text messages from teammates asking whether the team was in or out.

“I couldn’t give them a definite answer, but I told them I felt pretty good,” Nolte said. “I thought there was about an 85 percent chance, 90 percent chance we’d be in. … I had us being one of the last six or seven to be in, and we ended up being a little above that.”

Washington (23-10) won the Pac-10 championship against Arizona on a last-second shot in overtime. It’s led by 5-foot-9 guard Isaiah Thomas, an All-Pac 10 player.

“I’ve been seeing him play for a while,” Leslie said. “He’s a great player. And I know they’ve got a great team. So I’m just looking forward to Friday.”

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