The NCAA Tournament seemed a faraway notion for the Georgia Bulldogs as their 2001 season began last November. Humbled by a 10-20 campaign the year before, they could hardly afford to be so delusional.

As late as Jan. 6, the "Big Dance" remained a million miles away. That day, the Bulldogs returned home from their first game of the SEC schedule, a 71-67 loss at Kentucky that dropped their overall record to 7-7.

In its next game, however, Georgia edged Auburn in an overtime thriller. Thus began the 6-game winning streak that essentially got the Bulldogs into the NCAA Tournament. Included in that string were road victories over Top 25 teams Ole Miss and Florida, as well as a double-overtime win in Athens over Tennessee.

Georgia settled into a pattern of inconsistency down the season's homestretch, completing sweeps of Tennessee and Vanderbilt but losing twice to South Carolina. That 6-game surge in January ultimately became sufficient proof that the Bulldogs were an NCAA Tournament-worthy squad.

Ingredients to their Success
How was Georgia able to post such a dramatic improvement from the previous year? Coach Jim Harrick's Bulldogs stamped themselves as a resourceful and resilient group. They maximized their strengths, drawn from only a modicum of talent, and were made stronger by the difficulty of their schedule.

Here are a few of the individual facets to this team's development:

   *The maturation of D.A. Layne. Aided by a better supporting cast, Layne posted the best season of his career at Georgia, averaging 16.8 points - actually a 1.5-point decrease from 2000 -3.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists per contest. Just as important as Layne's consistent play was something, as Harrick likes to say, "you just can't coach in a player." In so many games Layne saw the critical possession, the big shot, as his moment. And more often than not, he delivered. Seven times Layne scored at least 15 points in the second half. Never was he better than in road wins at Georgia Tech (28 points) and Ole Miss (21 points, 19 in the second half) or in the home win over Vanderbilt (30 points, 21 in the second half).
   *The addition of Ezra Williams. Yes, his play was inconsistent and unpredictable, but when Williams scored well, the Bulldogs generally won. Shedding a month-long shooting slump, he scored 30, 18 and 24 in consecutive SEC games and helped jump-start Georgia's ascent to the SEC East Division lead in January.
   *The development of Rashad Wright. Harrick was reluctant to hand his offense to a true freshman for the second straight year. But Wright, unheralded out of Statesboro High, took his hefty assignment and thrived by mid-season. He became the first rookie since Litterial Green in 1989 to hand out over 100 assists. In the 16-game league schedule, Wright ranked third among all SEC players in assist/turnover ratio.

In Defense of Georgia
To the surprise and scorn of many NCAA Tournament junkies nationwide, Georgia received its first invitation in four years. The Bulldogs had plenty to argue in their favor: A 9-7 record in what was rated as the nation's toughest conference by the computer-generated rating systems (RPI and Sagarin).

   *A consistently high RPI rating throughout the, reaching as high as sixth and finishing the regular season at 19th.
   *The nation's most difficult schedule, as rated by both the RPI and Sagarin since late December.
   * Seven wins against teams that finished the regular season with RPI ratings of 50 or better. Four of those wins were against teams in the RPI Top 25. Four of them came on the road (Ole Miss, Tennessee, Florida, Georgia Tech).
   *A scarcity of "bad losses." Until the LSU game at the SEC Tournament, the worst RPI of any team that defeated Georgia was 61.

More Kudos to Layne
Layne's decision to return for his junior season allowed him to accomplish a number of personal goals. He's now enshrined in the Georgia record book in several spots, with more surely to come.

   * In mid-February Layne became the school's all-time leading taker and maker of 3-point shots. He passed former Georgia great Litterial Green in both categories and he'll enter his senior season with 231 career treys and 583 attempts. Interestingly, his 164 three-point tries this season were the fewest of his three seasons.
   *In the season's fifth game Layne became the 32nd all-time Georgia player to score 1,000 career points. In the 26 games that followed, he passed 23 former players on that list and finished the season with 1,453 points, good for ninth place on the all-time list.

More Highlights from the Season
   *Georgia managed to win at Ole Miss on Jan. 13 without the aid of the 3-point shot, going 0-4 from beyond the arc. Not since Jan. 14, 1995 in a loss at Kentucky - 189 games before - had a Bulldog team failed to make a 3-pointer. Not since Dec. 17, 1988 against Georgia Tech - a span of 375 games - had a Georgia team won a game without making a 3-pointer.
   * Before beating Ole Miss the last time Georgia had defeated a Top 25 team on the road was nearly six years ago, when Hugh Durham's Bulldogs won at No. 20 Alabama 72-58 on Feb. 4, 1995. Go back to Jan. 24, 1990 for the next previous time, when Georgia won at No. 13 LSU en route to its only SEC regular-season championship.
   *As far as anyone can tell, Georgia had never before defeated two Top 25 teams on the road in succession before the Bulldogs upended Ole Miss & Florida in mid-January.
   *When Georgia defeated Georgia Tech in Atlanta on Dec. 6, it marked the program's first road win over a team with a winning record in almost two years (not since Feb. 3, 1999 at Vanderbilt). That win over the Jackets, by the way, came 20 years to the day after Georgia's last victory there.

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