ATLANTA – Feel free to debate whether today’s Georgia-Alabama matchup at the Southeastern Conference tournament will serve as a play-in game for an NCAA tournament bid.
Georgia’s (left to right) Jeremy Price, Chris Barnes and Travis Leslie relax on the bench Thursday late in the second half of the Bulldogs’ 69-51 win over Auburn
It’s just as likely that Georgia’s first-round meeting with Auburn on Thursday could have been a "play-out" game for the Bulldogs.
"I guess (it was), if you want to put it like that," chuckled Georgia junior Trey Thompkins, who led the Bulldogs into today’s rematch with the Crimson Tide by scoring 22 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in a 69-51 win against Auburn on Thursday.
Thanks to a good-but-not-great regular season, Georgia might have been an at-large NCAA tournament team regardless of Thursday’s outcome.
The Bulldogs went most of the season without losing to a single team ranked outside the nation’s top 35 teams in the Rating Percentage Index (RPI), before falling to No. 82 Alabama in last Saturday’s regular-season finale.
Despite playing the nation’s 35th-toughest schedule, the Bulldogs won 20 games and posted a winning record in conference play.
Typically, that would be enough to get a team into the Big Dance before postseason play even factored into the equation.
"We tried to do the things the (NCAA selection) committee has traditionally asked for," Georgia coach Mark Fox said, "and so that body of work hopefully will be evaluated as it always has been."
But that coveted NCAA bid was no certainty for the Bulldogs – and they knew as much on Thursday before taking the floor at the cavernous Georgia Dome.
A loss to an Auburn team that some college basketball analysts rank among the worst major-conference squads of the last decade would have created a heap of doubt for the Bulldogs, possibly pushing them straight past the bubble and out of the tournament field altogether.
"We didn’t want to have that on our résumé, a loss to Auburn," senior Chris Barnes said of the Tigers, who rank 253rd in the RPI. "That would have been a bad loss for us, so we just came out and played the game well and played like we shoulda played."
In truth, it was never close. Georgia controlled the paint against the Tigers, staked itself to a 34-23 advantage by halftime and held a double-digit lead throughout the second half. The Bulldogs never allowed the Tigers – who overcame big deficits to win their final two regular-season games and pushed Georgia to overtime before falling 81-72 in Athens – to get back into the game.
"I think that might have been the best we ever did (this year) defending and rebounding," said Barnes, whose team held Auburn to 39 percent shooting and outrebounded the Tigers 39-27. "But we can’t pat ourselves on the back for this game because we’ve gotta look to our next opponent, which is gonna be a tough Alabama team."
Barnes and his teammates answered repeated questions after Thursday’s game about where the Auburn win puts Georgia’s NCAA tournament hopes, as well as about the ramifications of today’s game with the Tide – whose NCAA hopes are shaky, as well, despite nearly winning the conference’s regular-season title.
Like everyone else, the Bulldogs aren’t sure whether surviving their first hurdle in the conference tournament is enough – "I’m not a bracketologist," Barnes reminded us – but they refused to allow Auburn to be the team that jeopardized their postseason hopes.
They can remove all doubts with another win today, forcing Alabama to instead be the team that waits in front of the television on Sunday night, desperately hoping to see its name announced when the NCAA releases its picks.
"This is my first year actually being a contender and I’m proud of it and actually excited for what the future holds," said Thompkins, whose team was a combined 26-37 in his first two seasons at Georgia. "We’ve gotta take care of business (today) in order to have a future."
• David Ching is sports editor of the Banner-Herald. Phone: 706-208-2239. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.