Shortly after the NIT bracket was revealed, Belmont head coach Rick Byrd gave Mark Fox a quick ring about the first-round rematch that was scheduled.
“Coach Byrd reached out to me (Sunday) night and joked that they must not have checked last year’s bracket,” Fox said.
Indeed, Georgia is opening its second consecutive NIT appearance the way it did the previous one, with a first-round home game against the Bruins.
Last year, Georgia took care of Belmont in a high-scoring affair 93-84 with forward Yante Maten scoring a career-high 33 points against an undersized team. But Fox knows Belmont can be a dangerous team, especially if the 3-pointers in its spaced-out offense are falling.
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“They shoot a bunch of 3s. They’ve had games where they shot over 40 3-point shots,” Fox said. “That’s really a weapon of theirs. What makes it really effective is that they have an interior scorer (Evan Bradds) who led the country in field-goal percentage two of the last three years. That’s why they’re a very effective offensive team.”
In Georgia’s win a year ago, the Bruins hit 14 of 37 3-pointers. Much of their offense involves shooting the ball often from the perimeter.
With Georgia relying on a zone for much of the season, the Bulldogs are a different defensive team than a season ago. And based on what he has seen thus far, Belmont does a few different things despite the fact it returned almost every major contributor from last year’s squad.
Therefore, Fox doesn’t believe there are too many takeaways his team can get from last year’s meeting.
“I think they’re quite a bit different than they were last year,” Fox said. “They do have some traits that they carry with them from year to year. We can look at last year’s game for just a little bit. I think our team is totally different than a year ago so we can’t really rely on last year’s game.”
For Georgia (19-14 overall), the hopes of playing in an NCAA Tournament weren't realized after falling to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals.
Even so, the Bulldogs believe there is still a lot to play for in the NIT. For one thing, it gives Georgia's younger players a chance to continue playing and practicing to help build confidence heading into the offseason.
For senior guard J.J. Frazier, however, the NIT is one last chance to compete as a college athlete, which he is not taking for granted.
“In life, sometimes you fail at what you set. That doesn’t make you a failure,” Frazier said. “I know my teammates and I are going to play the same way regardless of the situation. For us, it’s not going to be a letdown. We’re obviously disappointed but we’re going to play our tails off like we always do.”
While Georgia opens this NIT the same as a year ago, the difference is what would happen if the Bulldogs are to win. As a No. 3 seed in 2016, Georgia defeated Belmont (22-6) and then had to travel cross-country to Saint Mary's.
If Georgia wins Wednesday, it will have another home game against either No. 3 seed Indiana or No. 6 seed Georgia Tech. If both Georgia and Georgia Tech win, it would set up a rematch from when the two teams played on Dec. 20, 2016, which saw the Bulldogs win 60-43.
But as Fox sees it, Georgia can't look ahead to a potential game against its in-state rival or even against an Indiana program that boasts such a great tradition.
“I hope our team is looking at one thing only and that’s Belmont,” Fox said. “They got a terrific team. Our group’s not able to see past the game, at least they better not. These teams in this tournament are all accomplished and we can’t afford to look forward than any further than the next one.”