Georgia basketball lives to play another day

Bulldogs earn NIT bid, first since 2017
Georgia head coach Mike White reacts on the sideline during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Missouri at the Sotheastern Conference tournament Wednesday, March 13, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Georgia head coach Mike White reacts on the sideline during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Missouri at the Sotheastern Conference tournament Wednesday, March 13, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

ATHENS – Anybody who watched Georgia play basketball this season knows it was a much-improved team. That notion was validated Sunday night when the Bulldogs accepted a bid to play in the National Invitation Tournament.

Georgia (17-16) got official word during the NIT selection show, which was conducted a few hours after the higher-profile NCAA Tournament show concluded. The Bulldogs were tabbed as No. 4 seed and will play host to Xavier (16-17) in the first round Tuesday at 7 p.m. on ESPN.

“It’s not the ultimate goal, but it’s a step in the right direction,” Georgia second-year coach Mike White said on a late-night, video-conference call with reporters. “We’re excited.”

Tickets go on sale Monday at noon on for $20 for adults and $10 for youth and UGA students will be admitted free.

While some teams from Power 6 conferences declined NIT bids in advance of Sunday’s announcements, Georgia never considered not accepting a bid. In fact, White said the Bulldogs practiced on Sunday despite not knowing for sure whether they’d have another game to play or not.

“Guys still got after it,” White said. “We’ve got a team that likes to work and enjoys being between the lines and competing. We would’ve played with five that wanted to play. Not surprisingly, I think we’ll be at full strength or near it.”

Georgia’s leading scorer, graduate guard Noah Thomasson, thought he’d played his last game at UGA when the Bulldogs lost to Florida 85-80 Thursday night in the second round of the SEC Tournament in Nashville. Not only does he plan to play, but he basically guaranteed that all his teammates will. The possible exception would be senior Jabri Abdur-Rahim, who did not practice Sunday and hasn’t played in the last three games due to an ankle sprain.

“I don’t think anybody on our team is going to opt-out,” said Thomasson, who averages 13 points a game. “As a matter of fact, I’m 99.9% sure everybody’s going to play.”

Added White: “I didn’t get the feeling we’d have guys that would decline the opportunity.

Georgia has faced Xavier once before in postseason play. Following the improbable run through the 2008 SEC “Tornado” Tournament, the Bulldogs faced Xavier in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, losing 73-61, in Washington, D.C.

Playing in the NIT’s “Bottom Left” bracket, Wake Forest is the No. 1 seed in that group and would be the Bulldogs’ opponent in the second round should they get by the Musketeers. Georgia defeated the Demon Deacons 80-77 in Athens in the second game of the regular season on Nov. 10. If Wake (20-13) gets past first-round opponent Appalachian State (27-6), this time the game would be in Winston-Salem. The Bulldogs last played there in November of 2022, losing 81-71.

But first Georgia must get by Xavier, a Cincinnati-based basketball power that has encountered more than its share of adversity in its first year under coach Sean Miller. The Musketeers had six players miss extended portions or all of the season due to injuries.

“It’s interesting for those guys and for us just to see how we stack against a different league,” White said. “… That said, I think the level of play will be very similar.”

The Bulldogs already had a good idea they were going to get the call. The NIT this year was utilizing a new format that includes offering 20 at-large teams from Power 6 conferences that weren’t included in NCAA’s 65-team field. Georgia and LSU were the teams from the SEC that fit that bill.

So was Ole Miss. But the Rebels (20-11), who finished 10th in conference play, made it known after losing to Texas A&M in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, they would not be interested in playing in the NIT due to several players having “personal situations” to attend to. Also, Beard wants to get a jump start on rebuilding his roster through the transfer portal, which opens for college basketball on Monday.

Indiana, Memphis, Oklahoma, Pitt and St. Johns also declined invitations in advance. The primary reason cited was the NCAA’s transfer portal opening Monday morning.

In contrast, White made it clear to the NIT selection committee early on that the Bulldogs very much interested in continuing to play this season. Georgia also is expected to be busy in the NCAA transfer portal, but White says he and his staff can handle the multi-tasking.

“We’ll balance it collectively,” White said. “The phones will be burning first thing in the morning.”

The NIT bid is Georgia’s first 2017. That year, the Bulldogs were the SEC’s eighth seed and lost to Kentucky in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament. Feeling snubbed to be left out of the NCAA Tournament, the Bulldogs (19-14) were rewarded with a home game against Belmont. Then they lost 78-69 at Stegeman Coliseum.

Georgia’s deepest run in the NIT came in 1982 when the Dominique Wilkins-led Bulldogs lost to Purdue in the finals in New York 61-60. In 1998, Georgia also made it to New York, losing to Penn State 66-60 in the semifinals. The Bulldogs defeated Fresno State 95-79 in a consolation game that gave them a third-place finish.

Regardless of what happens in this year’s NIT, the Bulldogs already have proven themselves to be more competitive than a year ago. The loss to Florida Thursday night represented the 11th time this season in which Georgia was locked in a one-possession contest with 30 seconds to play. The Bulldogs enter the NIT with a 6-5 record in those contests.

In SEC play, Georgia’s scoring differential went from minus-13.0 points per game last year to minus-0.21 points.

“I love it; I’m excited about it,” White said of the NIT bid. “I’m excited to dive into the scout and learn as much about Xavier as I can. That’s part of the excitement of this time of year. But it gives young people more opportunity to play, for development, for experience, whether fifth-year guys or freshmen. They’ve earned it.”

Said Thomasson: “I know they have some big-time scorers. I know they play physical and hard because it’s the Big East, one of the premier leagues in the country. So I think it’s going to be dog fight. I hope Stegeman is rocking Tuesday. We need you guys to hopefully make it uncomfortable on them and get a win.”