Bulldogs encouraged ahead of Bama game

ATLANTA -- Georgia basketball coach Mark Fox doesn’t know whether Friday’s SEC tournament quarterfinals game against Alabama will be an elimination contest for an NCAA at-large bid.

If it is, Fox has to be encouraged by the way the Bulldogs played in Thursday’s warm-up.

After needing overtime to defeat Auburn in Athens during the regular season, the Bulldogs took control early and routed the Tigers 69-51 in the SEC tournament’s opening game at the Georgia Dome.

Georgia forward Trey Thompkins, an All-SEC choice, finally looked healthy after battling ankle and toe injuries for much of the season. Thompkins, who is considered a potential first-round pick in this summer’s NBA draft, scored 22 points with 10 rebounds in 31 minutes.

“It’s the best he’s played in a long time,” Fox said. “I really felt Tuesday was probably the first time in practice where I thought, ‘Wow, he’s looking healthy.’ I think he had some confidence because he felt better.”

Thompkins, from nearby Lithonia, Ga., made eight of 15 shots, including going 3-for-5 on 3-pointers.

“It’s the first time I’ve been 100 percent all year,” Thompkins said.

Thompkins, who averaged 15.8 points and 7.6 rebounds during the regular season, missed Georgia’s first three games after badly spraining his ankle during the regular season. He returned to action in losses to Notre Dame and Temple in the Old Spice Classic in late November.

“Usually with Trey, we have been able to build around him,” Fox said. “With as much as he’s been through this year, that hasn’t always been the case.”

Georgia needs Thompkins to play just as well Friday if the Bulldogs are going to defeat SEC West champion Alabama in the SEC tourney quarterfinals. The Crimson Tide defeated the Bulldogs 65-57 in Tuscaloosa in the March 5 regular-season finale.

Thompkins nearly missed that game after having a toenail removed a few days before the game. He scored 15 points with 10 rebounds against the Tide in the last meeting.

“Alabama is a great team,” Georgia forward Chris Barnes said. “They gave us a good beating at their house. It’s going to be hard playing them.”

Fox said he hopes Friday’s game isn’t an NCAA at-large elimination game. Georgia came into the SEC tournament with an RPI rating and schedule strength inside the top 40 nationally. Georgia is 21-10 overall, including a 10-7 record against SEC foes. The Bulldogs went 7-4 in true road games, and nine of their 10 losses came against teams ranked in the top 36 of the RPI ratings.

Georgia’s big blemishes: It’s only 1-5 against RPI top-25 foes and 3-9 against the top 50.

“We have played the entire season to create a tournament résumé, which the committee will evaluate,” Fox said. “We have tried to do what the committee asked us to do -- play a schedule that’s arranged in the top 40 in the country; win enough games with their RPIs in the 40s; win more games than we lose in our league; and have a winning record on the road.”

Going into Thursday’s action, ESPN bracket guru Joe Lunardi had Georgia as the last team included in the 68-team NCAA tournament field.

“We’ve tried to do the things the NCAA committee has traditionally asked for, so that body of work hopefully will be evaluated as it has always been,” Fox said.

Georgia probably could erase any doubt about its at-large chances by defeating the Crimson Tide.

“Hopefully we’re in but that’s not up to us,” Thompkins said. “It’s up the committee.”

Despite beating the Bulldogs nearly a week ago, the Crimson Tide might be in a more precarious position than Georgia. Alabama went 20-10 during the regular season, including a 12-4 mark against SEC foes.

Since the SEC expanded to 12 teams in 1992, every division champion with at least 11 conference victories went on to play in the NCAA tournament.

But going into Thursday, Alabama had an RPI rating of No. 82 and its schedule was ranked No. 150 nationally. The Tide went 4-6 in road games, 1-2 against the RPI top 25 and 3-3 against the top 50. Alabama also suffered unsightly RPI sub-100 losses to Providence (No. 148), Arkansas (113) and Iowa (170).

“Everybody says, ‘Well, the SEC is down,’” Fox said. “Well, the top sure isn’t down. I have no idea where either of us sits in the eyes of the committee, and we can’t control that. All we’re going to worry about is trying to advance in this tournament.”