Dawgs Hold out Slim Hope

ATHENS -- Dennis Felton has needed to look no further this week than ESPN to validate his theories on winning basketball.

When Georgia's basketball coach turns on the all-sports network, he sees that VCU won the CAA title in a 55-54 game; Bowling Green advanced in the MAC Tournament with a 56-54 win, and the MAAC crown went to Manhattan thanks to a 62-61 victory over Niagara.

"All of championship week is being played in the 50s," Dennis Felton said. "That's what it becomes in championship week, who can execute in the halfcourt on both sides of the ball."

The Bulldogs (15-12 overall, 7-9 SEC) enter their championship week Thursday when the SEC Tournament begins. Georgia, the No. 5 seed from the Eastern Division, plays West No. 4 Auburn (14-13, 5-11) at 1 p.m. in the Georgia Dome in the opening game of the tournament.

The Georgia team that will arrive in Atlanta today for tournament preparation is unlike any that has gone to the conference tournament since 1997, when Kentucky coach Tubby Smith was coaching the Bulldogs, in that it's built around defense. A change seems warranted, considering the Bulldogs haven't won an SEC Tournament game since 1998. They are 1-5 in the conference tournament since Smith left.

"This year we absolutely have to buck that trend," senior forward Jonas Hayes said, "especially if we want to get to a postseason tournament, at least the postseason tournament we want."

The winner of this week's tournament will receive an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, but the Bulldogs still believe they can receive an at-large bid by winning just one or two games. Georgia has an RPI of 51 and four wins over teams in the RPI top 17, according to CollegeRPI.com. If Georgia beats Auburn and Kentucky in the second round, "we feel like we should be in with no doubt," point guard Rashad Wright.

However, most national analysts think anything short of a conference title will send the Bulldogs to the NIT.

"The only way the Dawgs will dance is with the SEC's automatic bid," according to ESPN.com's Bubble Watch.

CBSSportsline.com also lists Georgia in the "Bubble burst" column.

For the Bulldogs to change anybody's mind, they'll have to continue to play defense the way they have for the past six weeks. Since a 71-58 loss to Mississippi State on Jan. 24, they have held every opponent to fewer than 70 points.

Georgia ranks sixth in the conference in scoring defense (65.3 ppg), which has allowed it to win six of its final 10 games despite ranking next-to-last in the SEC in scoring offense (66.2 ppg).

"You can win when you're not at your best offensively when you're at your best defensively," Felton said. "I just really believe in what we do and how we do it."

Under Jim Harrick, the Bulldogs were built around offense. Last year, they led the league in scoring (79.2 ppg).

"We weren't a bad defensive team, but that wasn't the stamp of our team like it is now," Hayes said. "Offense takes a night off every now and then, but defense should be a constant."

Georgia is hoping that constant carries them long enough to keep their NCAA dreams alive.

"In a tournament, they allow you to play more physical and aggressive," Wright said. "That's an advantage for us that we want to keep using."

NOTE: Freshman guard Levi Stukes will play Thursday with a brace on his right, shooting, wrist. Stukes aggravated an old wrist injury during Georgia's win over Vanderbilt on Sunday, but he said he doesn't expect it to affect his shooting against Auburn "Once I'm in a groove, I don't think about it too much," he said. Stukes is the Bulldogs' second-leading 3-point shooter (35.7 percent).

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