Money speaks, and the financial commitment the University of Georgia made to basketball five years ago brought Coach Hugh Durham to Athens and the team to this week's final four in the Bulldogs' first NCAA tournament appearance.
When Georgia hired Durham, the Bulldogs had only 12 winning seasons in the previous 40. Durham, who had taken Florida State to the NCAA championship game in 1972, got assurances from Georgia officials that they wanted a good basketball program.
The commitment included a tripling of the recruiting budget and the ability to hire high-caliber, high-priced assistant coaches.
Don Beasley and Eddie Biedenbach, the current assistants, are both former Division I head coaches and Durham says they each are paid a higher salary than John Guthrie, the previous coach, made in his final season.
But Georgia also is profiting from its investment. Average home attendance has increased from 4,800 in Guthrie's final season to 8,700 this past season. Also Georgia will receive more than $500,000 from the NCAA. It shares that with other Southeastern Conference schools.
With the help of the extra recruiting money, Durham's staff signed three of the most highly sought high school players in the country. Center Terry Fair, forward James Banks and guard Vern Fleming are starters. With the coaching lineup, Durham has stressed basic, fundamental basketball.
What has surprised Durham most about this season is reaching the final four; the Bulldogs play North Carolina State Saturday in Albuquerque.
"We had the talent, but there are a lot of teams with talent that aren't in the final four," Durham said. "It's just being able to put it together and hoping it falls in place at the right time."
The right time for Georgia (24-9) was its final regular-season game against Tennessee, after the Bulldogs had lost six of their eight games in February.
"We played exceptionally well against Tennessee (a 74-59 victory in which the Bulldogs made 58 percent of their field-goal attempts)," Durham said. "That victory put us in the top six of our conference. We had only to play three games instead of four to win it (the Southeastern Conference tournament and automatic bid to the NCAA tournament)."
The Bulldogs have reached the national semifinals with a 6-foot-7, 6-6, 6-5 front line, and without much depth. The keys have been exceptional quickness and equally exceptional balance. For example, four of Georgia's top 12 career assist men play on this team, as do three of its top 20 career scorers.
"Any coach likes to have a team that's balanced, plays hard and has a chemistry that makes coaching fun," Durham said.
The other starters are forward Lamar Heard, a fine defensive player and rebounder despite being only 6-5, and point guard Gerald Crosby, a sophomore who is not bashful about shooting 25-foot jumpers when open. The only experienced inside reserve is 6-7 Richard Corhen, a hero against North Carolina in Sunday's East Regional final.
Despite the nine losses, Durham maintains his team has played consistently all season, having lost four road games by a total of nine points. "Our level of play has moved up--the consistency of it," Durham said. "Rather than playing 25 minutes (of how Durham wants them to play), we're now playing 35 or 38 minutes."
Or, as Banks said after beating North Carolina, "We're not playing over our heads."