Dawgs still looking towards NCAA

ATHENS – Georgia's players believe they still have a chance to make the NCAA Tournament.

Despite having a sub-par record in a sub-par league, they believe. Despite an RPI rating worse than Northwestern State, Hofstra and UNC-Wilmington, they believe. Despite a schedule considered the 70th strongest in the nation by CollegeRPI.com, they believe.

They believe because Coach Dennis Felton has told them to believe.

"It comes up basically at every practice and every meeting we have," freshman guard Mike Mercer.

No one was talking about the Bulldogs (14-8, 4-5 SEC) making the NCAA Tournament entering this season, Felton's third overall and his second since losing all but one contributor from his roster. If it weren't for Felton, that would still be true, but the coach who perpetually insists he looks no further than the next game keeps telling his players to keep their eyes on the prize.

"I think it's important for everyone to understand, most importantly our players, that we're doing a lot of good things in terms of our program," Felton said. "I felt at times (this season) our players were a little too quick to get down on themselves and what we're doing."

Felton has drilled his players with the belief that 18 wins at the end of the regular season will make them deserving of a tournament berth. That would mean winning four of their final seven, a stretch that starts today with a 4 p.m. game against No. 11 Tennessee (17-3, 8-1).

"We could win all of them," Felton said.

That's not likely considering Georgia must play at Kentucky, at Florida and the SEC East-leading Volunteers in that period.

"There's not a dominant team" (in the SEC this year), point guard Sundiata Gaines said. "The closest to a dominant team is LSU, and we don't play them anymore so I figure we have a good shot."

Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl has jumped on the bandwagon, at least for this week.

"Coach Felton has done a good job of keeping a young team really focused in on their opportunity to make the NCAA Tournament," he said. "Georgia is a bubble team right now."

If that's true, it's a mighty big bubble. The Bulldogs' RPI (the rating percentage index, one component in selecting teams for at-large bids) is 71. The average RPI of the 14 teams Georgia has beaten is 162.3, and its only win over a Top 50 RPI team was last week's over Alabama (No. 49).

Georgia's players see a slate of opportunity in their final seven games.

"We play some pretty good teams in that time so we have a chance to pick up some pretty good wins," center Dave Bliss said.

Still, a more realistic goal for the Bulldogs is a berth in the second-tier NIT Tournament, for which only a .500 record or above is required. Even that would be an accomplishment for a team that won just eight games a year ago.

"I don't think anybody goes into the season and says, ‘Hey, we want to make the NIT,' but it's still a mark of progress," Bliss said. "It's still something to build off of."

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