KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Georgia Bulldogs got what they wanted here at the Sprint Center on Monday night.
First, they took care of business and earned a quality win against a worthy opponent in George Washington. Georgia beat the Colonials, 81-73, in a game that was frightfully close right up to the end. Now, the Bulldogs get what they really signed up for: a date with basketball powerhouse Kansas in the CBE Hall of Fame Classic championship game Tuesday at 10 p.m.
This falls into the old category of “be careful what you wish for.”
The No. 8-ranked Jayhawks (3-1) advanced to the finals with a 83-63 win over UAB in the second game of the doubleheader on Monday night. It concluded more than two hours after the Bulldogs’ semifinal tilt, so naturally they didn’t know who they’d be playing.
But everybody had a pretty good idea. KU came in as a 19-point favorite. They covered.
Now, Georgia is not new to facing basketball royalty. After all, it gets to play Kentucky every year in the SEC. But for Georgia coach Mark Fox, this is a particularly special opportunity. He’s a native Kansan, from Garden City, and a degree holder from KU no less. Fox commandeered a graduate degree in athletic administration/sports psychology from Kansas in 1996. Met and befriended Roy Williams in the process, too.
So, even the buttoned-down Fox had to admit this matchup being a bit of a big deal.
“I am a graduate of the University of Kansas. … The only time I don’t root for Kansas is when they’re playing our team,” Fox said. “Kansas is the benchmark for great basketball. There’s KU and there’s UK and they’re both blue and they’re both terrific. I have the utmost respect for the history and tradition of Kansas basketball because I grew up watching it.”
Kansas basketball is a big deal. I took a Sunday afternoon drive 42 miles to the west to Lawrence, Kan., to get a first-hand look at a place many regard as the true heart and home of the game basketball. I’d never been there before and I’m glad to say I have now.
James Naismith is buried there. I went to his grave at Lawrence Memorial Park Cemetery. There’s quite a monument there to the man credited with inventing the game of basketball and founding the KU basketball program as well. Included in this expansive marble exhibit are monuments paying homage to his basketball legacies, some of them not even dead yet: Phog Allen, Adolph Rupp, Dean Smith and Larry Brown.
Naismith and Allen are also well-represented on the campus. There’s a huge statue of Allen in front the storied facility that bears his name, Allen Fieldhouse. Attached to it by way of a second-story concourse bridge bedazzled by Naismith’s 13 original rules of basketball in metal stencil is the DeBruce Center, which houses a History of Basketball museum.
Also, there is an elaborate building called Marie S. McCarthy Hall. Built out of rock-chalk — of course — it’s a dormitory that houses almost exclusively KU’s basketball players. Has its own dining hall and everything. Not sure how they dodged the NCAA rule disallowing such things, but word is a half-dozen or so non-basketball residents have made it stand up.
When KU fans say they invented basketball, they’re not really kidding.
I share this only to illustrate the different ends of the basketball spectrum from which Georgia and Kansas will come to meet on Tuesday night. Which is not to say the Bulldogs have neither tradition nor game. They have them both. It’s just the schools exist in inverse worlds: UGA where football is king and KU where they tore down the goal posts after beating a 5-5 Texas team this past Saturday.
But the Bulldogs promise to be up for it. It was a solid victory they notched over a solid opponent on Monday. They led most of the way, trailed for a while early in the second half, then made the move superior teams are expected to make late in the game to hold on for victory. And they did it with leading scorer, Yante Maten (21.7 ppg), having fouled out with 3:36 to play.
When it was over, Georgia was more relieved to have taken care of its business against George Washington than excited about getting a shot at KU.
“To be honest, for us, we’re just happy that we got this first one,” said senior guard J.J. Frazier, who logged his customary 18 points. “That’s just being honest. It sounds cliché, but we really don’t care who we play. We’re just excited to get back into a championship game for the first time in a long time.”
Said Maten: “We’re going to come to play and try to win. We never look forward to any team; we look forward to the next game.”
There will be a big, partisan KU crowd on hand, but there’s no reason for the Bulldogs to be intimidated. They have their own basketball traditions. Former coach Hugh Durham and player Dominique Wilkins were just enshrined Friday in the very Hall of Fame for which this tournament is named. And the Bulldogs also have with them a pretty good coach from Kansas.
Mark Fox already climbed this mountain one time earlier in his career. His Nevada team knocked off the Jayhawks, 72-70, on Dec. 1, 2005 , in Allen Fieldhouse.
“Well, it’s big for our team because we’re playing good basketball teams,” Fox said of making the big-time matchup happen. “It’s big for our program because we just put two of our greats in the Hall of Fame and we wanted to represent them well. This is obviously a national stage … and we needed to show well. So I’m really proud of that.”