Just 4 days ago, Georgia had a 13-16 record and was tied for last place in the SEC. In addition to having only a 4-12 record in SEC play, the Bulldogs suffered losses to smaller conference teams like East Tennessee State and Tulane. But 4 days later on Sunday, the Georgia Bulldogs are the SEC Tournament Champions with a 17-16 record and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The Bulldogs have achieved the impossible by literally rising from worst to first in a matter of days. How did they make it through this Cinderella ride?
Needless to say, the Georgia Bulldogs were not a good team and certainly not worthy of an NCAA Tourney bid. In fact, had Georgia not played early season cupcakes like 7-22 Jacksonville State, 7-19 Grambling State, 11-19 Hawaii, 14-19 Elon, 14-16 Delaware State, and the 5-25 Presbyterian Blue Hose, they may have not made it to 10 wins on the season.
So when the SEC Tournament came around this weekend, one can assume that few – if any – had faith in Georgia winning it all. In terms of estimating their chances for winning a conference championship, the Bulldogs had pretty much everything stacked up against them. As a low seed they were required to play four games in four days, which can take a toll on teams as the weekend nears a close. In the opening round, Georgia barely beat Ole Miss 97-95 but it took them extra minutes to scrape out a victory. Georgia followed with an impressive win over Kentucky, a game which was not without its own drama.
An inexplicable tornado traveling through Atlanta damaged the Georgia Dome and forced the postponement of the Kentucky-Georgia game the early afternoon on Saturday. This meant that the winner of the game would have to play two 40-minute games in one day – a nearly impossible feat for a team with fairly little depth.
Kentucky and Georgia played a back-and-forth contest which had 9 lead changes and ultimately led to a 50-50 tie going into overtime. Tied at 56 late in OT, this game was likely to go into another extra period. But with 1.2 seconds left, little-used freshman guard Zac Swansey hit a turnaround three pointer to send Georgia to the semi-finals. The improbable dream still lived on for at least another few hours.
Later that night, Georgia dispatched the #1 SEC West team Mississippi State 64-60 and the improbably rise of the 13-16 Bulldogs had almost come to fruition. The Bulldogs had not even played in the SEC Championship game since 1997 and hadn’t won it in 25 years, but Sunday was their chance.
After going up 30-11 in the first half, Arkansas climbed back to within 3 points with less than three minutes left in the game. But Billy Humphrey and Terrance Woodbury made clutch shots and never looked back.
The exponential rise of Georgia from a bottom of the barrel SEC team to a tournament contender represents the magical ride that is the month of March in college basketball. Conference tournaments give favorites a chance to cement their #1 status, bubble teams a chance to make the tournament, and teams like Georgia a chance to make history.
While the conference tournament games provide teams chances for redemption as well as confidence leading into the NCAA Tournament, critics have pointed out that they may as a result de-emphasize the significance of the regular season. Teams should be rewarded for their overall body of work – for their RPI, quality wins, and strength of schedule. Teams like 20-loss MEAC tournament championship winner Coppin State should not make the Tourney under any circumstances.
But with the magical story of Georgia head coach Dennis Felton leading his underdogs all the way from the bottom to the best in the SEC, one could not have scripted the story any better. Coach Felton said that he was “busting at the seams” with pride for his team and fans across the country probably feel the same way.
Regardless of whether Georgia receives a 13 or 14 seed in the tournament, they have achieved the ultimate feat of coming from absolute obscurity in a power conference to being the best – albeit for one weekend.
Whether they can duplicate that magic in the Tournament is another story. But one thing’s for sure; few if any teams will want to play them in the opening round.