ATLANTA – The sound of heavy rain hitting the Georgia Dome roof early Wednesday afternoon naturally made Jeremy Price and Chris Barnes think back to the scene the last time they were in the venue.
Georgia coach Mark Fox brings his team together at midcourt during practice Wednesday at the Georgia Dome.
"When I started hearing the rain, I looked up at the scoreboard to see if it was swaying back and forth," Barnes said after Georgia’s shootaround for today’s Southeastern Conference tournament opener against Auburn. "I was like, ‘I hope this is not going to happen again.’ "
The Georgia seniors laughed about that wild weekend when they were freshmen as they walked onto the court Wednesday. They are the only two remaining members of the 2008 Bulldogs team that withstood a tornado-interrupted SEC tournament somehow, some way to win the title as a last-place team.
"That weekend, that tournament, that was crazy," Price said.
As the SEC tournament returns to the Georgia Dome for the first time since that F2 tornado ripped a hole in the roof of the Dome, the Bulldogs are in a rare position compared to recent years: not needing to cut down the nets to ensure they get an NCAA tournament bid.
"It’s a good feeling that we don’t have to win it to get in the NCAA tournament," said Barnes, who has talked to Price about getting bookends SEC tournament titles to close their careers.
Georgia (20-10, 9-7 SEC) still has work to do, needing one or possibly two wins to secure an at-large bid, but winning the tournament almost certainly won’t be needed to join the 68-team field.
Whether a win over Auburn (11-19, 4-12) today would be enough to do the trick remains to be seen.
Jerry Palm of CollegeRPI.com pegged Georgia on Wednesday as a No. 9 seed, but ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has the Bulldogs as one of the last four teams in the tournament.
"By no means are we going into this tournament feeling like we’re in a comfortable position," Georgia coach Mark Fox said on his radio show Monday. "We have to win a game on Thursday. That’s our focus. Then if we can do that, we’ve got to try to win one on Friday, and then if we can do that, we’ve got to try and win one on Saturday."
Georgia probably won’t be able to rest easy unless it also knocks off Alabama on Friday in the quarterfinals.
"We’ve got to win probably one or two games, but we’re not really focusing on the NCAA tournament right now," Barnes said. "We’re really focusing on playing Auburn."
Said forward Trey Thompkins: "It would mean a lot for me to play in the tournament. I know y’all are getting tired of me saying it, but we’ve got to focus on one night, take it one night at a time."
Georgia has 20 wins for just the 11th time in the 105-year history of the program.
"If Georgia loses to Auburn on a neutral floor, then it is definitely eliminated," Lunardi said Wednesday. "This time of year, them losing to Auburn or if they get to the second game and lose to Alabama, that may be the truest elimination game this week, other than Clemson-Boston College in the ACC."
The last time Georgia arrived at the SEC tournament in better shape than it is this year for an NCAA tournament at-large bid was 2002 when a No. 17 team under Jim Harrick lost to LSU in the quarterfinals, but still got a No. 3 seed.
Georgia entered the SEC tournament 17-12 in 2007 and after beating Auburn 80-65, then-coach Dennis Felton said an NCAA berth would be a "done deal" with another win, but the Bulldogs lost to Florida.
A year later, the Bulldogs won the title after the Friday night tornado delayed Mississippi State’s win over Alabama for more than an hour and forced other games to be relocated to Georgia Tech, where the Bulldogs won three games in a 30-hour stretch.
Georgia players were getting ready to come out of the tunnel for their quarterfinal game against Kentucky when overhead catwalks and scoreboards shook and foam insulation and some fastening bolts dropped from the roof.
"It was something out of a movie," said Barnes, not in uniform that weekend because of a knee injury.
Georgia can only hope the script after this SEC tournament ends with the Bulldogs getting an NCAA tournament berth.
Georgia vs. Auburn
► WHEN: 1 p.m. today.
► WHERE: Georgia Dome, Atlanta.
► WHAT: SEC tournament first round
► TV/RADIO: Peachtree-TV/960-AM.
► RECORDS: Georgia (20-10, 9-7 SEC); Auburn (11-19, 4-12).
► PROBABLE STARTERS: Georgia – F Travis Leslie (Jr., 6-4, 205, 14.3 ppg, 7.1 rpg); F Trey Thompkins (Jr., 6-10, 240, 15.8 ppg, 7.6 rpg); C Jeremy Price (Sr., 6-8, 264, 9.4 ppg, 5.0 rpg); G Dustin Ware (Jr., 5-11, 182, 8.3 ppg, 3.6 apg); G Gerald Robinson (Jr., 6-1, 180, 12.4 ppg, 3.9 apg). Auburn – F Allen Payne (Fr., 6-6, 206, 5.8 ppg, 3.0 rpg); F Kenny Gabriel (Jr., 6-8, 190, 10.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg); F Adrian Forbes (Jr., 6-8, 230, 3.6 ppg, 2.8 rpg); G Josh Wallace (So., 5-10, 160, 5.7 ppg, 3.9 apg); G Earnest Ross (Jr., 6-6, 215, 13.4 ppg, 6.7 rpg).
► SERIES: Georgia leads 88-87. The Bulldogs are 4-3 against the Tigers in the SEC tournament and have won three straight first-round games against Auburn, the last 80-65 in 2007 in the Georgia Dome.
► LAST MEETING: Georgia outlasted Auburn 81-72 in overtime on Feb. 5 in Athens after the Bulldogs let a four-point lead slip away with 25 seconds left in regulation. Price tied his career high with 22 points and set a career high with 14 rebounds, and Leslie had 20 points and eight rebounds. Ross had a career-high 30 points, including 5 of 7 on 3-pointers.
► SEASON AT A GLANCE: Georgia is coming off a 65-57 loss at Alabama on Saturday that left the Bulldogs seemingly with work to do to land an NCAA tournament at-large bid. The Bulldogs went 4-4 in their final eight games. The Bulldogs are 38-48 in SEC tournament games, with championships in 1983 and 2008. Auburn started SEC play 0-6, but went 4-6 in its final 10 games, including wins over South Carolina, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and LSU. Auburn beat LSU 60-51 on Saturday night to secure the No. 5 seed from the West.
n NOTEWORTHY: The winner plays Alabama at 1 p.m. on Friday. … Auburn center Rob Chubb (7.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg) did not play the first game against Georgia while serving a suspension for a violation of team rules. … The Tigers went 2-8 in games away from Auburn. … Auburn’s only SEC tournament title came in 1985 when the eighth-seeded Tigers won four games in four days. …Auburn has no seniors on its roster. … Georgia is 8-6 away from Athens this year. That includes 1-2 in neutral site games at the Old Spice Classic in Orlando.