Georgia's long road back to NCAA tourney

CHARLOTTE -- The Georgia men's basketball team will play its first NCAA tournament game in three years Friday night.

Seems longer, doesn't it?

The 2008 appearance, which the Bulldogs achieved by winning the SEC tournament after finishing last in their division, amounted to an upward blip on a downward spiral. The following season brought 20 losses and, afterward, new coach Mark Fox.

"When he first got here," forward Trey Thompkins said this week, "we were a team full of problems."

Two years later, Georgia (21-11) will face Pac-10 tournament champion Washington (23-10) and its star point guard, Isaiah Thomas, in an NCAA East Regional game. Friday night's tipoff is scheduled for 9:45 on CBS.

On Thursday, the Georgia players tried to acclimate themselves to the big event. Before they arrived at Time Warner Cable Arena for an early-evening news conference and public practice, to be followed by a private practice off-site, the players spent an hour walking around downtown Charlotte. Fox said he "forced" the outing from the team hotel because he wanted the players "to enjoy the atmosphere and try to get comfortable, get some of the jitters of being in the tournament behind us."

The game will be Georgia's second in the NCAA tournament in nine seasons; the 2008 berth brought a quick 73-61 elimination by Xavier.

"It feels good to be back," said senior center Jeremy Price, the only current Bulldog who played in the 2008 tournament, "and try to win some games this time."

For Price and other players who experienced the tumultuous 2008-09 season, during which coach Dennis Felton was fired and replaced on an interim basis by Pete Herrmann, and the growing pains of Fox's first season in 2009-10, the Big Dance represents the reward.

"Day in and day out, we always dreamed about getting to this point," junior guard Dustin Ware said.

Said Thompkins, also a junior: "It's an opportunity I've never had before, an opportunity this team felt we deserved. And now that we're here, we've got to take advantage of it."

When Fox took over, Thompkins said, the new coach inherited a team rife with problems -- "little things as far as academics and taking care of stuff off the court." The turning point, by all accounts, was a fed-up Fox making the team run every step in Sanford Stadium in 2009.

"That was enough for all of us to wake up," Thompkins said. "Everybody at that point had had a little mishap, and it just led to so much stuff between 13 guys. He took us to the stadium, and we ran all our problems off."

Said junior Travis Leslie: "In the past, players got arrested and kicked off the team. We have had no issues, really, with the team [in two seasons], and hopefully it can stay that way."

Fox believes players' off-court conduct and on-court performance are inextricably connected.

"The first step really was to address their behavior in every facet of life," Fox said. "They did buy into how we wanted them to function, and I think that's one of the big reasons they've earned their way into the tournament.

"You can't be successful consistently on the basketball court if you're not successful off it. I think there's a real correlation between guys who can function as students and as good citizens also play[ing] well. If you have issues off the floor, all it does is take your time and energy and focus away from playing the right way on the floor. So we did talk a great deal about trying to become issue-free, socially and academically."

On the court, Georgia made strides last season, Fox's first, but once again finished at the bottom of the SEC East. This season, the Bulldogs tied for third in the division -- the first time in four years they finished higher than last and the first time in eight they finished higher than next-to-last.

"As you rebuild something, you talk about a vision, and you have to go sell the vision of 'this is what we're going to do,'" Fox said. "But eventually, you have to be able to say, 'This is what we did.' So I think [being in the NCAA tournament] is a very important step for us because what we've been telling people came true. And now we can continue to push forward."

So far this season, the team achieved two of the goals Thompkins had in mind when he decided to forgo last year's NBA draft: a 20-win season and an NCAA tournament berth.

"I not only wanted to make the tournament. I wanted to win some games in it," Thompkins corrected. "I feel like we have a good nucleus and a group of guys who can be productive in the tournament."

They will find out, starting Friday night.