CHICAGO — Word that Georgia had received an unexpected No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament caused great excitement in Athens on Sunday.
"Now you've got to play up to it,'' said Coach Jim Harrick.
The No. 3 seed gives Georgia an excellent opportunity to advance to the Sweet 16. Should it beat No. 14 seed Murray State, which is winless in its last eight NCAA appearances, Georgia would advance to face either No. 6 seed Texas Tech or No. 11 seed Southern Illinois on Sunday.
A Georgia team that was a preseason pick to finish at or near the bottom of the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division now has the chance to be a factor in the NCAA tournament.
Georgia doesn't have great depth. It does not have any player bigger than 6-foot-8. It does not have a senior among its top eight players. But No. 21 Georgia (21-9) has an opportunity to build on its already successful season.
"I want them to understand the moment they're in,'' Harrick said. "Now they have an opportunity. You can't let that go by without giving the greatest effort you've ever given in your life.''
March Madness could become Midnight Madness for Georgia fans following tonight's game on CBS. The Georgia-Murray State game will start 25 minutes following the end of the 7:50 p.m. ET Texas Tech-Southern Illinois game. That could make for a 10:15 to 10:30 p.m. or even later tipoff for the Bulldogs.
Noting that his team played games in California and Hawaii in December, Harrick said he is not worried about the late starting time. He is more worried that his team shakes off a late-season funk. Losing six of their last 11 games, including their last two, has affected
the Bulldogs' confidence.
From the opening day of practice, when Jarvis Hayes and others promised the Bulldogs would surprise experts who picked them to finish fifth or sixth in the East, Georgia's players appeared comfortable with the underdog role. As they climbed into the SEC East lead in January, they seemed to thrive in that role.
Once the Bulldogs entered the Associated Press Top 25 for good in mid-January, they looked less comfortable with higher expectations.
Now comes the highest expectations of the season — the surprisingly high No. 3 seed in the East Regional. The last time Georgia was a No. 3 seed in the East, it suffered a first-round upset loss to Tennessee-Chattanooga in 1998. Last year, as a No. 8 seed, Georgia fell to No. 9 seed Missouri in the first round. That Georgia team, which finished 16-15, was a story just be making the NCAA tournament.
"It's a lot different than last year,'' says sophomore point guard Rashad Wright, in his second year as a starter.
"Last year we were just trying to get there. This year we have changed our goals, trying to get deep in the tournament, trying to get to the Final Four in Atlanta. It's just a different feeling right now, trying to come out focused and play hard.''
There is no question about Murray State's confidence. The Racers were 9-11 after a Jan. 26 loss at Eastern Kentucky, but Coach Tevester Anderson — a former Georgia assistant — challenged his team with a series of early morning physical practices that left two players with cuts that required stitches.
The Racers (19-12) responded with 10 wins in their last 11 games, including a 70-69 victory over Ohio Valley Conference regular-season champion Tennessee Tech in the final of the OVC tournament.
Justin Burdine launched the game-winning shot in the big win over Tennessee Tech, and the senior has been the go-to player for Murray State all season. "He's the real deal,'' says Anderson.
Burdine also is the kind of player who can lift a No. 15 team to a first-round upset of a No. 3 seed.
Harrick promises that his players will be ready to play "with a knowledge of what they need to accomplish.''
Added Harrick: "There will be some upsets. Hopefully, it's not us.''
Charles can be reached here: CEOdum@aol.com