Originally created 03/17/04

Georgia senior misses out on NCAA



ATHENS, Ga. - Damien Wilkins has already been to the National Invitational Tournament.

He's already been to NIT Final Four.

He's already been to Ames, Iowa.

But it's where the Georgia senior hasn't been that kept him up late Sunday night.

"I wanted to be able to play in the (NCAA) tournament," Wilkins said. "Things didn't go our way. It's a sad feeling for me personally."

As a freshman, Wilkins helped lead N.C. State to the NIT Final Four at New York's Madison Square Garden. As a high school senior, he played in the McDonald's All-American game in Ames.

But now, Wilkins is the lone Georgia senior who has not been on a team to make the NCAA field of 65. He'll help lead the Bulldogs against Iowa State tonight at Ames' Hilton Coliseum in the NIT's first round.

When the Bulldogs weren't among the teams selected Sunday evening to play in college basketball's marquee event, he took it hard.

"It really hurt me" Wilkins said. "It still hurts. It's been an amazing experience from just watching it. Now I'll never get to experience it (in person)."

Wilkins couldn't watch the selection show with his teammates in their Stegeman Coliseum meeting room. Instead, he took a walk around the stadium.

"I didn't want to see that," he said. "I'd rather hear about it. If we had made it, I would have watched it again and again and again."

Georgia's exclusion was like running into another pothole on Wilkins' bumpy college ride.

Wilkins left Raleigh, N.C., after his sophomore season. A feud with Wolfpack coach Herb Sendek and the frustration of unmet expectations led to the departure.

N.C. State went to the NCAA tournament last season, which would have been Wilkins' senior year had he stayed.

"I don't have any regrets" Wilkins said. "I'm happy they're doing well. But I think we've done well."

Wilkins had to sit out his first season at Georgia under NCAA transfer rules. When Georgia went 19-8 and finished third in the SEC East last season, it looked like Wilkins' best chance to make the NCAA tournament, but school officials pulled the Bulldogs from the postseason in reaction to possible NCAA rules violations.

Normally a jokester in the locker room, Wilkins has been subdued, teammates said.

"I didn't know how to approach him" fellow senior Jonas Hayes said. "I feel bad for him. But he's strong-willed. We've got another agenda ahead of us."

Wilkins' demeanor on the court has not changed, coach Dennis Felton said.

"He's back to himself, working hard" Felton said. "He's good at that. He bounces back."