Battle for bracket survival begins

WASHINGTON --- Everybody appreciates an underdog, including Stanley Burrell and his Xavier teammates.

 

So Burrell and the rest of the Musketeers, members of the not-enough-respect Atlantic 10 Conference, gathered at coach Sean Miller's home last weekend to watch the SEC Tournament final, rooting for Georgia to complete its out-of-nowhere surge and claim that title.

"We were going on, like, 'Come on! Come on! Y'all can do it!' " Burrell said Wednes-day. "They're America's team right now. Everybody loves them for everything they've gone through."

After Georgia beat Arkansas to claim an improbable conference championship and NCAA Tournament berth, Xavier stayed tuned to Miller's TV to see the bracket announcement.

"It's crazy. We're sitting there, 'Come on Georgia, hang in there,' and all of a sudden it's, 'Xavier matches up against Georgia,' " Burrell said. "Oh, man. You serious?"

The No. 3-seeded Musketeers (27-6) face the No. 14 Bulldogs (17-16) today in the first round of the West Regional.

"They stayed together and built up a lot of chemistry," said Burrell, one of six players averaging double figures in points for a team making its seventh NCAA appearance in the past eight years. "They deserve to be here with the run they made. And now we're looking forward to ending that run."

There was little sign that Georgia was capable of doing what it did to make it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002.

After all, the team won only four SEC games in the regular season and entered the conference tournament three games under .500 overall. There was talk that coach Dennis Felton was on the way out, talk he and his players were all too aware of.

"All coaches know -- and I'm no different -- that your employers have the right to fire you whenever they want. So we live with that all that time," Felton said after practice at the Verizon Center. "It was the first time in my career I've ever dealt with actual speculation like that."

Said senior guard Sundiata Gaines, who leads Georgia in scoring, rebounding and assists: "He started receiving a lot of heat from the media and the press, some within the Georgia program. ... Winning the SEC championship made it good for him, as far as his job security. He was relieved."

That the Bulldogs would have trouble on the court might not have been that surprising given how the season began.

Back in October, before a game was played, three players -- including the team's top two returning scorers -- were suspended for violating the school's new class-attendance policy for athletes. In November, junior guard Billy Humphrey was suspended for possession of a knife on school property.

"The off-the-court issues, it was more of a bump in the road," said Humphrey, who contributed 12 points and six rebounds in Sunday's victory over Arkansas. "It wasn't a distraction. It was more of a form of adversity, something we had to overcome and get over -- and we eventually did."

Still, in late February, after a loss to Vanderbilt that was part of a 1-10 rut, Georgia's players gathered to discuss what they needed to do to turn things around.

The message, full of optimism, was that if they could stick together and play hard over their next four games, they could -- some way, somehow -- make a crazy dream come true: reach the NIT.

"We've always continued to identify what we had left to fight for," Felton said. "So we talked about our record, and how much we had to win down the stretch to be above .500 to make it to the postseason in the NIT."

Now look where they are.

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