Georgia Bulldogs look to make most of opportunity in NIT Tuesday

Georgia center Russel Tchewa reaches out to haul in a rebound in the Bulldogs' win over Ole Miss earlier this season at Stegeman Coliseum (Photo by Cassie Baker/UGA Athletics)

Credit: Cassie Baker/UGAAA

Credit: Cassie Baker/UGAAA

Georgia center Russel Tchewa reaches out to haul in a rebound in the Bulldogs' win over Ole Miss earlier this season at Stegeman Coliseum (Photo by Cassie Baker/UGA Athletics)

ATHENS – Thanks to some breaks, Georgia got what it wished for -- a postseason bid. Now the Bulldogs need to make good on it.

They will have their hands full as traditional Big East power Xavier (16-17), under the direction of second-year coach Sean Miller, comes to Stegeman Coliseum for an NIT first-round game Tuesday. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. (ESPN).

Both teams sputtered at the end of once-promising seasons. Each went 3-7 over the final 10 games of the year. Playing all but a few SEC teams close, the Bulldogs (17-16) fell to Florida 85-80 in the second round of the SEC Tournament in Nashville. That was Georgia’s 11th game that was a one-possession contest in the final 30 seconds. It is 6-5 in those games.

The Musketeers upset eighth-seeded Butler last week in the Big East tourney in New York 76-72 before falling to league champion UConn 87-60 in the second round. Xavier has played shorthanded most of the season, with six players missing extended periods or out due to injuries.

Both teams received NIT bids because others in their league passed. Georgia got in due to Ole Miss declining an invitation and the Musketeers got the nod because St. Johns and coach Rick Pitino passed.

With bids going out late Wednesday night, there was not much time for preparation.

“A bunch of film,” Georgia second-year coach Mike White said of scouting the Musketeers. “We’ll have a bunch of short film sessions and watch it right up until we tip Tuesday night.”

Xavier's Quincy Olivari (8) drives past Butler's DJ Davis (4) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the first round of the Big East Conference men's tournament Wednesday, March 13, 2024, in New York.nam (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

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Credit: AP

One standout playing for Xavier will be enjoying a homecoming of sorts in Athens. Guard Quincy Olivari, the Musketeers’ leading scorer, is a native Atlantan who played at Westlake High. The 6-foot-3 Olivari, a transfer from Rice, leads a guard-oriented lineup with 19.4 points and has scored in double figures in 30 straight games. Fellow guards Desmond Claude (16.7 points per game) and Dayvion McKnight (12.5) make Xavier’s backcourt a tough matchup.

Inside, the “X-Men” are led by 6-10, 244-pound senior forward Abou Ousmane. Ousmane is fourth in the Big East in offensive rebounding (2.8) and seventh in blocks (1.2). Georgia has been vulnerable in both areas this season.

Georgia also is led by a graduate guard in Noah Thomasson, who’s averaging 12.8 points per game. The Bulldogs’ advantages come in the form of one of the nation’s deepest benches – which has outscored opponents in 26 of 33 games and ranks 20th nationally in scoring at 28.6 points per game. They’ll also be looking for another strong outing from 7-foot, 275-pound graduate center Russel Tchewa (7.8 points per game/6.7 rebounds).

Georgia has played the last four games of the year without 6-8 senior wing Jabri Abdur-Rahim due to a sprained ankle. The team’s second-leading scorer (12.2) had not practiced as of Sunday and his status is questionable.

The real key for the Bulldogs comes on the defensive end of the floor. Under White, Georgia is 27-2 when holding opponents to 70 or fewer points. Xavier comes in averaging 75.8.

Home court could end up being a big deal. The Bulldogs drew great crowds all year despite going 2-6 in the Steg the final eight games of the season. They started the year 10-0 at home. UGA students will be admitted free to Tuesday’s game.

“I’m excited to keep playing with Georgia on the front of my jersey,” Thomasson said on Atlanta radio station 680 The Fan Monday. “Hopefully we’ll make a historic run in the NIT.”

It’s been a while. Georgia’s last bid was 2017 and it lost a first-round game to Belmont in Athens. Overall the Bulldogs are 13-14 in the NIT. Their best runs came in 1982 and 1998 when UGA advanced to the semifinal round. The Bulldogs lost to Purdue, 61-60, in the 1982 semis. Georgia fell to Penn State, 66-60, in the 1998 semis but bounced back to defeat Fresno State, 95-79, in the third-place consolation contest that year.

The Bulldogs feel a bit like they have been granted a reprieve after getting bounced in the second round of the SEC Tournament. The hope is they will play with renewed vigor on Tuesday.

“I loved the fight from our guys,” White said. “I thought we left it all on the court in Nashville. … But we lost our last one. If you ask me if our guys want to play Tuesday night at home against a Big East team, yes, that should be our approach to this.”