Georgia guard Charles Mann (4) tries to get past Kentucky’s Andrew Harrison (5) during the second half in the semifinals of the SEC college basketball tournament at Georgia Dome on Saturday. Georgia will meet Vermont in the first round of the NIT Tournament. (Reuters)
Mark Fox stayed calm, especially when he saw the names of a couple of Georgia’s SEC’s victims go by during the NIT selection show Sunday night. But the same couldn’t be said for all his players. The Bulldogs were the next-to-the-last name to be called during the 30-minute show.
It was nearly 9 p.m. before they learned they had earned a No. 2 seed and will play host to Vermont on Wednesday at 8 p.m.
“Our players are excited,” Fox said during a late-night teleconference call. “Cam Forte said he nearly died because we were one of the last teams to be announced. So our kids are really excited about getting to continue their season and continue playing together. …But I felt pretty good about the fact we’d be in. I was pretty confident.”
The Bulldogs (19-13) had hoped for an NCAA tournament berth but were certain a bid was not forthcoming after losing to Kentucky 70-58 in the SEC tournament semifinals on Saturday. But the NIT selection committee showed Georgia some respect. Georgia is one of four No. 2 seeds in the 32-team field, which will play the semifinals and finals in New York City at Madison Square Garden. The winner on Wednesday will face the winner of the Louisiana Tech-Iona game in the second round.
“I pay no attention to projections,” Fox said. “I felt like if we had won (Saturday) we would have been in the NCAA tournament. If we were that close in that situation, I figured we’d be among the one or two seeds in the NIT. I didn’t think we’d fall far losing to a good Kentucky team. So we’re certainly excited about playing at home and have a chance to keep playing.”
The Bulldogs drew some tough competition. The Catamounts (22-10) expected to be dancing in the big tournament at this point. But they were upset by Albany (17-16), host of the America East Conference Tournament, in the semifinals of that event a week ago. They had won 11 in a row before that.
And Vermont won’t be intimidated about playing in Stegeman. The Duke Blue Devils had to make a free throw with five seconds remaining to hang on for a 91-90 win on Nov. 24 at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“I don’t know a great deal about them but I did see them play Duke earlier in the year for part of the game,” Fox said. “They obviously understand how to win and they shoot the 3 well. But we still have a lot to learn and we’ll go right to work on that.”
The NIT has often proved to be a launching pad for developing teams with a lot of players coming back. Just last year Virginia was a No. 1 seed in the NIT. The Cavaliers were named a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament on Sunday.
“It’s very important for our guys to get this experience, having only the one senior (Donte Williams),” Fox said. “It will be a very valuable experience for our team. And we start our season next year in the Preseason NIT. For a lot of reasons this should be a real good experience for us.
This will be Georgia’s 12th appearance in the NIT and it has compiled an 11-11 record in the tournament. The Bulldogs made it to New York for the semifinals twice — in 1982 and 1998 — and finished third both times.
There is one very significant connection between Georgia and Vermont. The Catamounts winningest coach of all time, the now-retired Tom Brennan, is a Bulldogs’ basketball letterman and UGA graduate from the 1970s.
Fox said Brennan was the second person to text him Sunday. “He wants to call it the Tom Brennan Invitational,” Fox said with a laugh.