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Georgia off and rolling in quest to return to NCAA tournament

ATHENS, Ga. -- As Georgia coach Mark Fox made his way off the court here Saturday, following his team's 77-70 upset of No. 11 Kentucky, he stopped to hug the most recognizable face in the past decade of Bulldogs basketball. That would be former star forward Jarvis Hayes, who in 2001-02 led Georgia to an SEC East title, a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament and its first season sweep of Kentucky in 17 years -- a sweep that the Bulldogs haven't replicated in eight seasons since.

"We got 'em for you," Fox said to Hayes, who has become enamored with these Bulldogs while enduring a contract-limbo situation with the Nets.

"This [Georgia] team is wonderful," Hayes said. "They're loaded; they're still coming together, but they have the potential to go a long way."

Hayes' '01-'02 team were the last Bulldogs to win an NCAA tournament game, beating Murray State before losing in the second round to Southern Illinois. The following year -- Hayes' last in college -- all of Georgia's wins were vacated due to the Jim Harrick scandal, and they were banned from participating in the postseason. The school has made one tourney trip since, when they entered the '08 SEC tournament with a 13-16 record and made an improbable run to an automatic bid. There is much hope in Athens that this will be the year they legitimately get back to the dance, led by a pair of potential first-round NBA Draft picks in junior forwards Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie.

Saturday's win over Kentucky no doubt buoyed those hopes, but it didn't signify that the Bulldogs (12-2, 1-0 SEC) are finally back. It was merely the beginning. It was their first quality win of the season -- they missed on chances to beat Notre Dame and Temple in the Old Spice Classic in November -- and it came with a boost from a sold-out Stegeman Coliseum. They have professional-level talent -- the 22 NBA scouts in attendance didn't show up only to see UK's Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight -- but they've yet to prove they're efficient enough to be considered a national power.

Coming into Saturday, Georgia was 77th in kenpom.com's adjusted efficiency rankings (100th in offense and 62nd on defense). The site forecasted a 6-10 finish in the SEC, which would mean being relegated to the NIT. Fox's team exceeded expectations by knocking off the Wildcats in a hard-fought game he called "what college basketball is all about." Now it's his job to further maximize the Bulldogs' talent and turn them into a consistent, SEC winner.

Everything starts with the 6-foot-10 Thompkins, who had his finest game of the season against Kentucky (12-3, 0-1), using a barrage of short hooks, mid-range jumpers and accurate free-throw shooting (11-of-12) to finish with 25 points and seven rebounds. His final right hook of the game, taken from the right block over Jones with 2 minutes, 40 seconds left, effectively halted the Wildcats' comeback momentum, giving Georgia a seven-point lead that would stick as the final margin. Fox had drawn up a set specifically to get Thompkins the ball there in crunch time, and the coach called it a "player-of-the-year type play."

Up until the past 10 days or so, Thompkins' junior season had not been going according to plan. He was hailed as one of the game's best frontcourt players in every preview magazine, but a nasty high-ankle sprain kept him out of the Bulldogs' first three games and made him look like a shell of himself in their only two losses. He said he felt healthy in their past two games (he scored 26 against Eastern Kentucky on Dec. 31), and his father, Howard Jr., a 1981 draft pick of the Atlanta Hawks, happily looked on as Trey outworked the Wildcats' front line.

"[Trey]'s not a high-flyer, but when we were training this summer, he was flying all over the place," Howard Jr. said. "I told him, 'Boy, if we could've bottled that up [and avoided the injury], you'd have been set.' But today, you could tell that he finally had his bounce back."

Thompkins certainly aided his draft stock on Saturday while being guarded by a combination of the 6-8 Jones, 6-10 Josh Harrellson and 6-7 Darius Miller. The game came a day after news broke that the NCAA had denied Kentucky's appeal and ruled 6-11 import Enes Kanter permanently ineligible after receiving extra benefits from a Turkish professional team. Kanter, a future lottery pick, would've been the Wildcats' best big man this season, but early reaction to the ruling was that they'd survive without him, given how effective Jones (who was averaging 17.1 points and 9.1 rebounds) and Harrellson (16.5 points and 12.5 rebounds in the previous two games) had been thus far.

After being bullied by Georgia, UK coach John Calipari lamented that "we have to be tougher" -- a department in which Kanter no doubt could have helped. He actually made the trip to Athens, because he plans to ride out the season in an undergraduate "coaching" capacity that allows him to train for the NBA Draft. He sat on the bench in warmup gear, holding a clipboard, and assistant coach John Robic introduced Kanter to me before the game by saying, "Meet my assistant."

"Enes would have helped us on the inside," Knight said. "We could use him in any game, because he changes the game down low."

Georgia, meanwhile, had more game-changers on Saturday than Thompkins. Leslie played his standard, efficient inside-the-arc game, scoring 15 points on 5-of-10 shooting (and 5-of-6 from the stripe). He also had eight rebounds and four assists against just one turnover. NBA scouts covet him for his defense -- he's viewed as one of the college game's most physical and versatile lock-down artists -- and he set such a physical tone against the Wildcats that both Jones and Doron Lamb mildly complained, in interviews, about all the "bumping" Georgia did to their drivers. Leslie had, in part, given the rookies an introduction to the toughness of the SEC.

Shooting guard Gerald Robinson has far less name-recognition nationally than Thompkins or Leslie, but he was their third star, playing the most minutes (37), scoring the second-most points (17) and going nearly perfect (9-of-10) from the line. Hayes may be naturally inclined to like transfers -- he came to Georgia from Western Carolina back in 2000, and Robinson came from Tennessee State in 2009 -- but the former Bulldog was effusive in his praise for Robinson, calling his addition the "key" for them to make the leap to the top of the league, because it means defenses can't focus entirely on Thompkins and Leslie.

"This," Hayes said, "is definitely a tournament team."

Georgia definitely has the talent. And the Bulldogs acted, on Saturday, like they'd been there before. Their students didn't rush the court, in part because of the strong presence of security, and the players didn't mob each other on the floor after the buzzer, choosing not to treat it as a monster upset. Perhaps they also recalled that they'd knocked off No. 8 Tennessee and No. 17 Vanderbilt in Stegeman last season, and those victories didn't amount to a bid in the NCAA or NIT. So there was no need to celebrate prematurely.

There is, at the very least, a feeling that this year could different. In his postgame remarks, Fox said that he "didn't think we were totally outclassed" when he studied Kentucky and all of its blue-chip recruits on tape. "Last year we had to play out of character to win some of these games," he said. "This year, I felt that if we just played well, we'd have a chance to win." The Bulldogs aren't a lock for the NCAA tournament just yet, but they now believe they can hang with every one of the SEC's elites -- and that is a decent start.