Try as they might to brush off Tuesday night's non-conference matchup against visiting Xavier as just another game, deep inside their hearts, Trey Thompkins said he and his Georgia teammates understand it means a bit more than that.
With NCAA bids set to go out in just over a month, one of the factors likely to go into any decision by the selection committee regarding the Bulldogs no doubt will be their record in non-conference play.
A victory over the Atlantic 10 power Musketeers (16-6) would certainly aid Georgia's cause. No stranger to the big stage, Xavier has made back-to-back trips to the Sweet 16 and at 16-6 overall, 8-1 in conference play, is no doubt eyeing a return trip.
"It's good to have this type of game," Thompkins said. "I personally think Xavier will be in the tournament. I'm no 'Bracketologist.' I don't have any say, but they have a great team."
It's no accident that the Bulldogs (16-6) are meeting in Tuesday's contest (7:02 p.m.), which will be televised live by ESPNU.
In fact, it's just what head coach Mark Fox had in mind.
"Really, we started by just looking for a quality opponent," Fox said Monday. "We were trying to find a Top 25 team that would come to Athens and Xavier had an open date midyear, so that was the first team that was really interested in coming, so we took the opportunity. Really, the only chance to play a game like this was in February."
The Bulldogs have their work cut out.
Xavier is a veteran team, including four starters in double-figures, led by guard Tu Holloway who leads the team in scoring with 20.8 points per game.
Coach Chris Mack's squad also boasts plenty of size.
Seven-foot center Kenny Frease (269 pounds) averages 11.9 points and 6.8 rebounds, while 6-8, 245-pound forward James McClean is scoring 11.4 points per contest and a team-high 8.8 boards. If that's not enough, Xavier's first two players off the bench - Jeff Robinson and Andrew Taylor - check in at 6-9 and 6-8, respectively.
It's no doubt going to be quite the challenge, but it's also just the type of game the SEC wants to see its member schools play.
After seeing a number of its teams left out of the Big Dance due to a soft non-conference slate, the league urged its schools to make upgrades whenever they could.
Xavier certainly qualifies. The Musketeers come in with an RPI ranking of 24, Georgia, meanwhile, is 36.
"I know since I've joined the league that they (the SEC) have really made a push for us to schedule the right way," Fox said. "That's how we would have done it anyway, but now I think you see across the board, most league teams have upped their schedule a little bit but that's been driven by the league. I fully support it."
However, Fox disagreed with the notion that his Bulldogs don't already have some signature wins under their collective belt.
"I don't think that's fair. We beat Kentucky and they've got a good basketball team. We beat Colorado, which is having a solid year; we won at Tech so I don't agree with that at all," Fox said. "We went on the road and played on the road when some teams didn't play on the road until January. We played three. I don't agree with that theory and would argue that all day."
The Bulldogs and Musketeers aren't exactly strangers, although it's been almost three years since the two faced off in the 2008 NCAA Tournament first round in Washington, D.C. Third-seeded Xavier came from behind to post a 73-61 victory over No. 14 seed Georgia, which earned its way into the tournament solely by winning the tornado-plagued SEC Tournament in Atlanta the previous weekend.
"Xavier is terrific. They've got a terrific team. They understand winning, they score from all over the floor; they're a very good basketball team," Fox said. "When you get two good teams with good RPIs playing each other it's not going to affect it win or lose that much. They'll help you some if you win but this will be like anther league game, a 17th league game. They've got a great team and I think our players understand that."
NOTES: Thompkins said Monday he's feeling much better after being forced to undergo an IV prior to and after Saturday's win over Auburn. Fox said the other "three or four" players who became ill last week have also improved. "It's just part of the grind," Fox said.
There is some degree of historical significance to that only prior regular-season meeting of these schools, played Dec. 29, 1983 in Athens. Then-Georgia coach Hugh Durham arranged this contest out of respect for the family of one of Georgia's all-time greats: Vern Fleming. The New York native, who starred at Georgia from 1980-84, had an identical twin brother, Victor, who played basketball at Xavier during the same span. Interestingly, though Georgia won the contest 73-70, Victor won the sibling warfare on that night, outscoring Vern 21-20.
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