Dawgs on Big Stage Now

CHARLOTTE – By the time the Georgia men's basketball team took the court here on Thursday night for its public practice, there were a little more than a couple dozen people still in the stands.

They ended up being witness to a laid-back scene:

Players shot free throws and jumpers, not half-court shots and dunk contests, as previous teams had in Thursday's shoot-arounds. Head coach Mark Fox spent a lot of time talking with CBS announcers Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg, who will call Friday's NCAA tournament opener between Georgia and Washington.

As they prepare for their first NCAA appearance in three years, and their first as an at-large in nine years, Fox and his players say they enter this event in a more loose state. Making the NCAA tournament was the season-long goal, and at times a cause of angst. Now that they're in it, the weight is off.

"I feel like we're going to be a pressure-free team tomorrow," star forward Trey Thompkins said. "I feel like we're gonna go out and just play basketball, and play the way we know how to play."

But will Georgia actually play that way, or will the stage, and the moment, make them tense up? That may be the key question.

Georgia, the No. 10 seed in the East regional, enters the game a slight underdog to Washington. The game promises to offer a contrast in styles – as evidenced by the public practices each held on Thursday evening.

Washington held a dunk contest and spent five minutes practicing half-court shots. The Huskies spent the first portion of practices doing full-court drills, a reflection of a team that averages 83.5 points a game.

The Bulldogs play a more deliberate style, averaging 68.8 points a game. So who advances to the round of 32 – likely against second-seeded North Carolina – may depend on which team gets the game at its own space.

Or it could also depend on experience and poise on college basketball's biggest stage.

Experience would be on Washington's side, as the Pac-10 team has been to the NCAA three straight years and six of the past eight years.

Fox is trying to ensure that composure is a plus for his team. The Bulldogs celebrated so much after making the NCAAs on Sunday, that Fox said at the time he wanted to make sure the team transitioned from elation to focus. Fox was asked Thursday if the team had moved from celebrating to going back to business.

"Can I tell you four minutes into the game?" Fox answered, smiling.

Fox had the players walk around downtown Charlotte for an hour on Thursday morning, to try to "get some of the jitteriness of being in the tournament behind us."

"I want them to enjoy the experience," Fox said.

The forgotten fact for Georgia (21-11) is that it went from a losing overall record last year to making the NCAAs. Fox thinks the team had trouble handling that earlier in the season, pointing to the home loss to Florida, when he didn't feel his team handled that pressure.

"Now that they're in the tournament, hopefully they can as you say just relax and play," Fox said.

"We know this is a big stage," junior guard Travis Leslie said. "Everyone is here for a reason. And everyone is going to play hard to the end. If we just go out there and play our game, we know we can compete with a lot of teams. We're here for a reason."

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