1983 NCAA Tournament: The Georgia Bulldogs Were The Forgotten Cinderella

The 1983 NCAA Tournament is remembered for the miracle championship ride of Jim Valvano and the North Carolina State Wolfpack, who needed to win their conference tournament just to make it to March Madness and then pulled off two memorable upsets (Virginia and Houston) to win the national title. What’s forgotten is that there was another team at the Final Four that year on a similar ride and it was the 1983 Georgia basketball team.

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Georgia basketball is no doubt used to being forgotten, being in the shadow of the football team. In the early 1980s this was even more pronounced, as running back Herschel Walker had Georgia football squarely in the national spotlight, winning one national championship (1980) and making it to a major bowl game every year from 1980-83. Even the presence of forward Dominique Wilkins—one day to be known as “The Human Highlight Film” in the NBA wasn’t enough to get hoops on center stage in Athens.

Wilkins chose to skip his senior year, so the 1983 Georgia basketball team was looking at a semi-rebuilding process. It turns out that Wilkins’ departure allowed room for guard Vern Fleming to grow. Fleming averaged 17 ppg, and was joined by James Banks (14 ppg). Terry Fair also scored 14 a night, and Fair hit the boards to the tune of seven rebounds per game. This trio helped Georgia coast through a light non-conference schedule undefeated.

Problems started in SEC play though, and Georgia lost its first two league games and then a four-game skid in February put their NCAA Tournament hopes in serious jeopardy. They concluded the regular season at 18-9 and finished in fourth place. Even today, SEC basketball is not guaranteed to go four-deep and in the world of 1983, only 48 teams qualified for the NCAA Tournament.

Georgia handled its problem the same way N.C. State did theirs, and it was to take the matter out of the Selection Committee’s hands. The Bulldogs got a break when regular season champ Kentucky lost early, and then Georgia ripped off three straight wins. They shot 85 percent in the second half of the tournament final against Alabama. Fleming was named MVP of the event and with the win the Bulldogs had an automatic bid to the Big Dance.

The tournament push also shot the Dawgs up the seeding chart, to #4 in the East bracket. This was a critical jump, because the top four seeds in each region were automatically seeded into the second round. Georgia survived a tough 56-54 game with #5 seed Virginia Commonwealth, and advanced to the regionals.

Syracuse and the Carrier Dome was the host for the 1983 NCAA Tournament’s East Regional. Georgia was an afterthought. The focus was on the bracket’s two heavyweights. St. John’s was the Big East champ and #1 seed, led by sharpshooting guard Chris Mullin. North Carolina was the #2 seed and even more loaded, with future NBA forward Sam Perkins, future #1 overall draft pick in center Brad Daugherty, and this two-guard who was an All-American and thought to have some pro potential—a guy named Michael Jordan.

The cast of Fleming, Banks and Fair was understandably overlooked, but Fair was electric in the Sweet 16 against St. John’s. He scored 27 points, pulled down nine rebounds and led a 70-67 upset. Two days later in the final it was Banks’ turn. He scored 20 points, with Fleming and Gerald Crosby each kicking in 17 apiece and the Bulldogs beat Carolina 82-77 in a game not as close as the final score makes it sounds.

It seems hard to believe that winning two games in three days for a Final Four berth, against quite literally a Dream Team cast of opponents (Mullin and Jordan would both be on the Olympic team of 1984 that won the gold, and the 1992 “Dream Team” of NBA players at the Olympics) doesn’t get more attention. What the 1983 Georgia basketball team did was truly amazing. Even though the dream died against N.C. State at the Final Four in Albuquerque, these Dawgs deserve their day. Let’s make sure that history gives it to them.