Originally created 03/17/04

Georgia redirects toward NIT success



ATHENS, Ga. -- Flying into snow-blanketed Iowa for the first round of the NIT is not the post-season destination Georgia's basketball team had in mind, but the Bulldogs' veterans say they can shake off the disappointment of an NCAA snub and focus on the task at hand.

Georgia (16-13) plays at Iowa State (17-12) at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday night in the second half of a rare WNIT/NIT double-header. Idaho State visits the Iowa State women at 7.

The Bulldogs missed the NCAA tournament last year when the school's administration withdrew from post-season play in the midst of allegations of violations that ultimately led to the resignation of coach Jim Harrick.

The driving motivation by Georgia's four seniors this year was to erase that memory with a return to the NCAAs under new coach Dennis Felton. It didn't happen.

"It was a real blow to the gut to miss out," Felton said Tuesday. "We all felt a little funny in practice Monday, but everybody was doing their part to grind it out and get back to the work we have to do to get ready for Iowa State."

"You are always going to feel a little disappointed," said center Jonas Hayes, one of the seniors. "But we have a new agenda, which is to try to win the NIT."

"I'm over the disappointment," said forward Chris Daniels. "Life is full of ups and downs. We have had some ups and downs here at Georgia."

"It's the postseason," said guard Rashad Wright. "We have got another chance to play against a good, quality team."

Ames, Iowa, was covered by 15.6 inches of snow Monday, which could complicate Georgia's travel plans.

"We already know we will be delayed," said Felton.

"That's crazy," said Hayes. "At least we won't have to play the game outside, but I was hoping to at least go outside and see the sun."

Georgia did not have similar problems getting to road games this year, but the Bulldogs certainly struggled inside of opponents' gyms, winning only once in 10 times, most improbably at Kentucky.

Iowa State was 15-1 at home this year, with wins over NCAA tournament teams Kansas, Northern Iowa, Liberty, Texas, and Xavier. The only home loss was to Oklahoma State, a No. 2 seed in the NCAA field.

"It's been a struggle for us on the road this year," said Wright. "This will be another big challenge for us."

"I fear their players," said Felton, citing the scoring of 6-foot-2 guard Curtis Stinson, the shooting of 6-1 Jake Sullivan and the inside play of 6-9 Jared Homan and 6-10 Jackson Vroman.

Like Georgia, Iowa State does not go deep to its bench. Unlike Georgia, the Cyclones favor a fast pace.

"They are very good at blowing up the floor," said Felton.

"They are bigger than we are," said the 6-8 Hayes, "but we are used to that."

The physical matchups seem less problematic than Georgia's mental state. But the season has been one of peaks and valleys.

A win over then No. 3 Georgia Tech followed a 21-point loss at Pittsburgh. The win at Kentucky came on the heels of 20-plus point losses to Tennessee and South Carolina as the SEC slate started. Back-to-back wins over Kentucky and Florida came after an embarrassing 61-39 loss at Vanderbilt.

Felton said it took his team some time to learn how hard it had to compete to win, as evidenced by a 20-point loss at home to Winthrop.

"Our players never lacked the competitive edge," he said. "But they didn't understand how hard they had to compete to avoid losing. Whenever you take the floor, your honor is at stake."

If there is a positive, it is that Georgia is in a tournament that it could win.

"The odds are against you in either one of the tournaments," said Felton, "but obviously the elite teams are in the NCAA."

Playing deep into the NIT has been a springboard to many teams, including Georgia in 1982, which went to the NIT semifinals, and followed that up with the program's only trip to the NCAA Final Four in 1983.

But with Hayes, Daniels, Wright and Damien Wilkins graduating after the season, it will be difficult for Georgia to carry over any success it might generate in the NIT.

"Our team is so unique," he said. "We'll only bring back three players."

Only one of those, guard Levi Stukes, plays more than 16 minutes a game.