ATLANTA – Georgia delivered what it hoped was a closing argument Thursday in its quest for an NCAA tournament bid.
In reality, the Bulldogs probably have one more point left to prove.
Georgia's 69-51 victory over Auburn in the first round of the SEC tournament at the Georgia Dome – as convincing as it was – won't carry much weight unless the Bulldogs follow it up with a quarterfinal victory over Alabama.
"To be honest with you, I've got no idea," Georgia forward Trey Thompkins said of his team's NCAA hopes. "Hopefully we can be in, but that's not up to us. That's up to the committee. We'll just keep doing our job, and that's winning games."
Alabama (20-10) and Georgia (21-10) are on the NCAA tournament bubble. If Georgia wins Friday's showdown, it likely locks up a bid. Alabama may need to win one more tourney game. Regardless, the loser faces a couple of sleepless nights before Sunday's unveiling of the bracket.
That leaves Friday's showdown as the possible equivalent of an NCAA tournament play-in game, no matter how much the Bulldogs tried to avoid discussing its postseason implications.
"Today was a chance to play in the SEC tournament and a day to try and advance," Georgia coach Mark Fox said. "And that's all we have talked about all week. And I haven't allowed them to talk about anything else."
Georgia entered the postseason 39th in the RPI after posting a 9-7 regular-season SEC record. Alabama is only 82nd in the RPI despite a 12-4 conference record, though Georgia played in the much tougher Eastern Division while Alabama was in the West. The four SEC teams that seem assured of NCAA bids – Florida, Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Tennessee – play in the East.
Alabama beat Georgia 65-57 in Tuscaloosa last week. If Alabama beats Georgia a second time, how could the selection committee defend selecting the Bulldogs over the Tide? Is there room for six SEC teams?
"This is a great league," Fox said. "Everybody says, 'The SEC's down.' Well, the top sure isn't down. And there are a lot of leagues across the country – the big leagues – that the top's not down, but the middle and bottom are down. Well, that's not true of this league.
"There are two good teams playing tomorrow. I have no idea where either one of us sits in the eyes of the committee, and we can't control that. So all we're going to worry about is trying to advance in this tournament."
Georgia did everything it could Thursday to secure a bid. The Bulldogs dominated an Auburn team that had lost in overtime in Athens last month. Georgia led by as many as 21 points and never trailed in the rematch.
Auburn (11-20) had won its final two regular-season games, against LSU and Ole Miss, after trailing by at least 15 points in the second half, but the Bulldogs never allowed their lead to slip into single digits in the second half Thursday.
Earnest Ross had scored 30 points for Auburn in its regular-season loss to Georgia. Ross managed just four points and shot 1-of-10 Friday while being hounded all afternoon by Travis Leslie.
"I wasn't going to let that happen again.'' Leslie said.
Georgia also got big-time performances from its big-name players. Leslie had 12 point and 10 rebounds – seven on the offensive end – to go along with his great defense on Ross. But the biggest breakthrough came from Thompkins, who has endured a variety of healthy problems that included ankle trouble, a shin injury and an ingrown toenail.
"I guess my feet don't like me," Thompkins quipped.
He finally felt fine Thursday and put his best foot forward. He had 22 points and 10 rebounds and even shot 3-of-5 from 3-point range after going 17-of-66 from beyond the arc in the regular season.
Thompkins said it was the first time all season he felt 100 percent healthy.
"I felt like on Monday he was moving around pretty good, but I really felt Tuesday was probably the first time in practice I thought, 'Wow, he's looking healthy,' " Fox said. "And I felt like he had a chance to play well. I think he has some confidence because he felt better."
While it didn't come into play Thursday, the biggest difference between this season's Georgia team and the one that went 14-17 last season is that the Bulldogs learned how to win close games. But they've still suffered a few losses that could come back to haunt them. They blew double-digit leads against Notre Dame and Vanderbilt, fell in double-overtime at home to Florida and lost at the buzzer at home to Tennessee.
If the Bulldogs had won any of those games, they're probably safely in the 68-team field. Now they've left themselves with no margin for error.
"Everything from now on is a must win," Thompkins said.
Actually, this next one looks like a must win for both teams.