CHARLOTTE, N.C. - All year, the Georgia Bulldogs have thrived on their status as unknowns, overachievers and no-names. But as the No. 3 seed in the Southeast Regional, Georgia is not going to slip up on its opponents. This week at the Charlotte Coliseum, the Bulldogs are the hunted rather than the hunters.
Georgia (24-8) will open NCAA Tournament play today as an overwhelming favorite against the 14th-seeded Chattanooga Mocs (22-10). That's a position the Bulldogs haven't found themselves in all season.
"That's a valid point," said Georgia coach Tubby Smith. "The pressure has been off of them. They knew the expectations weren't high for them so the pressure is not the same. The only time there were really any expectations for us was back in early January when we were ranked in the Top 25 and getting ready to play Kentucky. We didn't deal with it very well then. Hopefully we've learned since then. It's like I told them: `You earn everything; no one gave us a No. 3 seed and no one is going to give us anything now."'
The Georgia players have vowed not to let their new status affect the way they play.
"It's nice to be a three seed and to be at Charlotte Coliseum and everything. But we still have one responsibility and one responsibility only and that's to beat UT-Chattanooga," said Georgia point guard G.G. Smith. "Expectations weren't very high for us but, as a team, we expected to win every game. We want to be favored every game no matter who we're playing."
Said guard Ray Harrison: "Our mindset is to take this game like we have all season - just play our game and play hard."
Georgia has a good track record against the Mocs. The two teams have played 31 times with the Bulldogs winning 28 of them.
Chattanooga, meanwhile, hasn't fared very well in the "Big Dance." In eight trips it has won just once - in 1982 when they had Gerald Wilkins - and it has lost the last three meetings by an average of 27 points.
"They're a better ballclub this year," Smith, the coach, said of the Mocs. "After evaluating films and watching them play, they're going to be as good a team as we've played this year. They can beat a lot of people. They'd do very well in the Southeastern Conference."
Smith said despite the youthfulness of his team, it is too driven and too battle-tested to take any opponent lightly.
"I think the experience we had in Hawaii and playing well in the Southeastern Conference Tournament should prepare us," he said. "Our guys know how they have to be mentally. They know everybody this time of year is capable of winning."
Chattanooga, which won both the regular-season and tournament titles for the Southern Conference, certainly seemed confident on Thursday.
"We feel that we can contend with anybody," said UTC forward Johnny Taylor, the Mocs' leading scorer and rebounder. "Georgia is a good ball club, they're just in a different conference than we are. People have a tendency to overlook us because we come from a smaller conference. Our team is just as athletic as theirs. We're very confident right now and we don't have any fear going into this game."
Said guard Willie Young: "We feel like we can play with Georgia."
Mocs' coach Mack McCarthy, who is 0-6 in the tournament, said in years past his team has been "just happy to be here." But not this season.
"This has been a two-year process for us to get here," he said. "We know the odds are very much against us; we know it will take a special effort. But we think are ready to play a quality game."
Coach Smith thinks they are, too, and he's worried about it. The Mocs are strong where the Bulldogs are weak, inside the paint.
Chattanooga is led by Taylor, a 6-foot-9 combination forward who is adept both inside and outside. Taylor averages 16.4 points and 7.4 rebounds a game. The Mocs also feature 6-8 center Chris Mims, who averages 10.8 points and 7.3 rebounds and 6-8 forward Marquis Collier, who averages 10.2 and 4.3.
Georgia will counter with a trio of power forwards - Jon Nordin, Devin Baker and Badi Oliver - that average 12 points between them.
"If we can get them to overachieve defensively, we might have a chance," Smith said.
While they might not actually be the underdog, the Bulldogs are talking like one.