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March 19, 2008

Georgia readies for another run

REGIONAL ANALYSIS: East | Midwest | South | West
FIRST-ROUND CAPSULES: East | Midwest | South | West
MORE: View the complete NCAA bracket | Print an NCAA Bracket | Play Tourney Pick'em

ATLANTA A fan in the center of the Georgia cheering section at Alexander Memorial Coliseum held a piece of cardboard with the catchy phrase "Worst to First (in 4 days)" during the Bulldogs' SEC final win over Arkansas.

If it were that easy, Georgia coach Dennis Felton wouldn't repeatedly call his team's stunning run to the NCAA Tournament a miracle.

The Bulldogs went from worst to first in the SEC by beating three NCAA Tournament teams in two days with a roster that had dwindled to eight regular players.

That seems difficult enough, but the fact that Georgia players, coaches and their families had to deal with difficult extenuating circumstances made their improbable run more amazing.

Tornado damage to the Georgia Dome forced the Southeastern Conference to alter the tournament schedule and move the event to nearby Georgia Tech University.

The scheduling change meant the Bulldogs had to win two tournament games in one day if they hoped to advance. UGA knocked off Kentucky - in overtime, no less - then defeated Mississippi State later that evening to earn its unlikely spot in the NCAA Tournament.

At the same time, Felton was coaching with the prospect that each game might be his last at Georgia.

Because of its stature as a national football power, Georgia isn't a program associated with Cinderella stories. But the Bulldogs (17-16) found a place among the Cinderellas by winning as many games in the SEC tourney four as they won the during the SEC regular season.

"This is more miraculous than anything I've been a part of," Felton said on the court in Atlanta shortly after his Bulldogs beat the Razorbacks 66-57. "They persevered so much and did it just in the nick of time."

Georgia faces third-seeded Xavier on Thursday in Washington, D.C., marking the school's first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2002.

Coach Jim Harrick left the program in disgrace in 2003, and the NCAA placed Georgia on four years of probation following an academic scandal and the revelation of unethical conduct and improper benefits. Georgia was forced to vacate 30 wins and its 2002 NCAA appearance.

"Dennis inherited one of the biggest messes that has ever been inherited," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "What he's done under very adverse circumstances has been admirable."

Despite votes of confidence from his coaching peers, Felton appeared to be on his way out the door less than a week ago. Georgia athletic director Damon Evans said he would look at the program "in totality" at the end of the season. In his tenure, Felton was 71-79 overall and 26-54 in the SEC, and by the end of the regular season, questions about his job status had become commonplace.

"The honest truth is it's incredibly difficult to stay focused during all that," Felton said. "There were moments when I was distracted by it. I feel like I'm a tough guy and can deal with most things, but it was difficult."

Felton's job security won't be a distraction anymore. After the SEC tournament title, Evans found Felton and gave him a bear hug on the court and later said the coach will return next season.

"I was looking at it and I didn't want to rush to a decision," Evans said. "That's why a decision hadn't been made. I said I would look at everything at some point in time. It's a non-issue right now."

A tournament appearance appeared to be a long way away at the start of the season.

Felton dismissed senior Takais Brown and junior Mike Mercer, Georgia's two leading scorers from the 2006-07 season, for missing too many classes. Sophomore forward Albert Jackson was suspended for the first six games for the same reason. Junior center Rashaad Singleton quit the team in January. The seasons for freshmen Jeremy Jacob, a four-star signee, and Chris Barnes, a three-star, ended because of injuries after only a combined 27 games.

Georgia carried only nine players on its SEC Tournament roster and used eight in the regular rotation.

"Sometimes media and different other people may think just because you lose your two best players you don't have a chance, and they kind of counted us out," said Sundiata Gaines, Georgia's leading scorer and the SEC Tournament MVP. "It definitely was a tough year because we had to fight through a lot of adversity, but that's what makes winning this SEC so special, just the overall team effort. We just built good team chemistry, especially coming down the stretch."

The effort started at the top with Georgia's two-man senior class, Gaines and center Dave Bliss.

Bliss won Georgia's first game of the tournament with a shot in the final 0.4 seconds against Ole Miss. He added 11 rebounds against Arkansas in the final.

Gaines averaged 17.3 points but was saddled with foul trouble for the first three games in the tourney. He fouled out for the first time since his freshman season, doing it twice in one day in the quarterfinal against Kentucky and the semifinal against Mississippi State. The final foul against the Bulldogs came in a collision beneath the basket that left him on the floor for several minutes with an injured hip.

But Gaines and Georgia wouldn't allow a sore hip or foul trouble derail their chance at history. Off the opening tip against Arkansas, Gaines got a steal and an easy layup. Georgia never looked back.

"Sundiata had it in his mind that he was going to come out and win this tournament," guard Billy Humphrey said. "We said we're not going to lose. We've been through it all. Why stop now?"

Video Highlights: Georgia captures SEC title

REGIONAL ANALYSIS: East | Midwest | South | West
FIRST-ROUND CAPSULES: East | Midwest | South | West
MORE: View the complete NCAA bracket | Print an NCAA Bracket | Play Tourney Pick'em

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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