(Updated 9:30 p.m.)
ATHENS — After days of debate about whether Georgia would reach the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, the verdict came quickly Sunday night: The Bulldogs are in.
Georgia will open against Pac-10 tournament champion Washington on Friday in an East Region game in Charlotte. Game time will be approximately 9:45 p.m.
Georgia’s selection was announced early in the hour-long, nationally televised bracket unveiling, and the Bulldogs’ No. 10 seed revealed that they were not as close of a call as many analysts had projected. The Georgia players got the news while watching the selection show in the team’s locker room.
“They jumped around like 7-year-olds that just won a Little League championship,” coach Mark Fox said.
“I don’t think I’ve been that happy in a long time,” forward Trey Thompkins said, “just seeing our whole team jump around and throw stuff in the locker room and hug each other as much as we did. That was a blessing, just to be able to see our name as in the tournament.”
Said guard Dustin Ware: “It was incredible. There is no other feeling like it, just knowing you’re in and all your hard work really paid off this year. . . . We went crazy. Some guys – I know I was one of them – were real emotional.”
Georgia is in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008, when the Bulldogs received an automatic bid after unexpectedly winning the SEC tournament, and for the first time as an at-large team since 2002.
The Bulldogs (21-11) drew an interesting opening opponent. Fox’s first assistant-coaching job was in 1991-93 at Washington, where he met his wife, Cindy, who worked at the time as the Huskies’ director of marketing and promotions.
Friday’s game will be the first-ever meeting in basketball between Georgia and Washington.
Washington, a No. 7 seed, has a 23-10 record and won the Pac-10 tournament with an overtime victory over Arizona. The Huskies’ best player is 5-foot-9 junior point guard Isaiah Thomas, whose dramatic last-second jumper won the title game. Thomas is averaging 16.8 points per game.
The Georgia-Washington winner will play again in Charlotte on Sunday against the winner of Friday’s North Carolina-Long Island game.
Debate had raged about Georgia’s NCAA prospects in the 48 hours following the team’s loss to Alabama in the SEC tournament quarterfinals, the Bulldogs’ second loss to the Crimson Tide in seven days. But as it turned out, Georgia made the NCAA field with room to spare and Alabama was left out.
On the selection show, committee chairman Gene Smith basically said head-to-head results are not the decisive determinant.
“A lot of people put head-to-head as a high priority in their criteria for different situations, [but] there were things with Alabama that didn’t stack up compared to the other teams,” said Smith, the Ohio State athletic director.
Fox was excited, but not surprised, by the Bulldogs’ selection. He had argued for a couple of weeks that the team’s season-long resume merited a bid.
“When you compared our body of work to some other teams that were supposedly on the bubble,” Fox said Sunday night, “I felt confident in our body of work. This is about a four-month marathon, not a four-day postseason tournament, and I think sometimes people forget that. I did have a good feeling, but you never know for sure.”
When the Bulldogs found out for sure, “the way we were jumping around, it seemed like we won the national championship,” guard Travis Leslie said. He and other players admitted to developing doubts about whether they’d get into the tournament as they listened to analysts debate the bubble over the weekend.
Among the factors in Georgia’s favor with the selection committee, though, were a solid RPI (although it slipped from 39 to 47 in the past few days), a 7-4 road record and only two losses against teams that rank below 35 in the RPI (both to No. 80 Alabama).
The selection ended a stressful wait for the Bulldogs and their fans and families.
“At four o’clock [Sunday] morning, my 8-year-old daughter woke me up, and she asked if we were in the Big Dance yet,” Fox said. “I said, ‘Honey, you need to go back to bed.’ She said, ‘Daddy, it’s Sunday. You said we’d know on Sunday if we’d be in the Big Dance.’”
Said Thompkins: “I was at home with my family [Saturday], and they were asking me, ‘Do you think we’ll be in?’ And I really had no answer for them. I lost a little sleep about it, but I can sleep real good tonight.”