Road experience gives Dogs confidence

"We've played in a hostile environment before. We just have to stay calm and play our game." - Rashad Wright on SIU's home court advantage

CHICAGO — Georgia coach Jim Harrick admits he is somewhat bewildered that Southern Illinois, only a No. 11 seed, was allowed to stay in its home state when it was sent to Chicago by the NCAA tournament selection committee.

The Salukis will have the home-crowd advantage at the United Center when they play No. 3 seed Georgia in a second-round game today at approximately 4:45 p.m. ET. Harrick isn't making too big of a deal about the disadvantage.

Sure, the Southern Illinois fans from Carbondale, Ill., will be loud — especially if Georgia falls behind early, as it did in Thursday night's 85-68 first-round win over Murray State. But some of Georgia's best results have come away from Athens.

"It won't make that much of a difference,'' said point guard Rashad Wright, whose ability to remain poised sets the pace for the Bulldogs.

Said Wright: "We've played in a hostile environment before. We just have to stay calm and play our game.''

Added forward Chris Daniels in a reference to Georgia's win at then-No. 2 Florida on Jan. 19: "I don't think it will be worse than it was in the Swamp.''

Georgia also won at then-No. 8 Kentucky, and it would be difficult to overestimate the confidence gained by wins at Rupp Arena and the O'Connell Center.

"We're not on their home court,'' said Harrick of Southern Illinois, "but there will be a lot of noise. .. You go on the road in our conference and it's like that. The road is so very difficult to play on.''

Southern Illinois hopes its fans provide a feeling of playing at home.

"I think the crowd helps us a lot,'' said guard Kent Williams. "We do have a lot of fans here. It definitely helps and also intimidates the other team a little bit.''

Illinois plays Creighton in today's first game, and Illinois fans who stay for the Georgia game might join in the cheers for Southern Illinois. Neutral fans also might adopt the Salukis as the underdog.

Georgia (22-9) will be playing to advance to the Sweet 16 for only the third time in school history. The Bulldogs played in their only Final Four in 1983 and lost in the Sweet 16 in overtime to Syracuse in 1996 after beating Clemson and Purdue.

Since 1996, Georgia had not won in the NCAA tournament before it rallied from an early deficit of 14 points to beat Murray State late Friday night.

The win should boost the confidence level of the Bulldogs, who carried two straight losses into the tournament.

"I like the way we played,'' Harrick said. "I think we played back more to the way we had been playing in the middle of the season.''

Southern Illinois (27-7) advanced with a 76-68 win over No. 6 seed Texas Tech Friday. Though the Salukis don't boast significant height, they played very strong defense and proved to be too athletic for Coach Bob Knight's Texas Tech team.

Even though Texas Tech was seeded higher than Southern Illinois, Harrick might have preferred to play the Red Raiders.

"Bobby Knight did an unbelievable job getting a six seed out of that team; that's all I'll say,'' Harrick said Saturday.

Georgia was led by Jarvis Hayes' career-high 31 points against Murray State, and that performance probably earned Hayes extra defensive attention today.

"We obviously know he's a good player, and I think a lot of people are starting to find out about him,'' said Williams of Hayes. "He can score in so many different ways.''

The Bulldogs had good balance against Murray State and will again need to spread the scoring today.

Starting forwards Chris Daniels and Steve Thomas combined for only 12 points against Murray State, including 11 from Daniels, and their production against forward Jermaine Dearman and center Rolan Roberts will be crucial. Roberts is a shot-blocking specialist.

Though the heights for the inside players are similar, the older Southern Illinois starters boast more bulk.

Strong defense made the difference for Southern Illinois against Texas Tech, and Coach Bruce Weber is asking for more intensity from his team tonight.

"They are not real complicated, but what they do they execute,'' said Weber of the Bulldogs. "They're a rhythm team. We've got to try to keep them off rhythm and do a good job on the boards. We can't let them get going.''

Charles can be reached here: CEOdum@aol.com


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