Early last March, several football players sat around a television set in the athletic dormitory at the University of Georgia, watching North Carolina win another basketball game en route to an NCAA national championship.

They were teasing James Banks, a starting forward on Georgia's basketball team, because he had turned down North Carolina. "James, you could be there," the football players said. "That could be you up there cutting down those nets."

Banks looked at them and announced, "I will be there. Next year. You watch."

Not many people believed Banks then, not even some of his teammates. Not many people believed Banks midway through this season, when Georgia had lost six out of eight games.

"James was still going around saying we'd be there, we would go to the final four," said teammate Gerald Crosby. "Some guys would say, 'Come on James, stop fooling yourself. We've just lost six out of eight.' But James didn't listen. He kept saying, 'We'll be there.' "

Banks is there. He and his teammates are here in the desert, ready to play North Carolina State Saturday at 3:30 EST (WDVM-TV-9) in the first NCAA tournament semifinal before a sellout crowd of more than 17,000.

Georgia, in its first NCAA tournament, is the team almost nobody--except Banks--expected to be in the final four. Georgia (24-9) fought off midseason blahs to win the Southeastern Conference tournament, then beat St. John's and North Carolina to win the East Regional.

"I looked out of my window this morning, at the mountains and the buildings that look like museums and said, 'Wow, we've made it to New Mexico,' " said forward Lamar Heard.

Once the Bulldogs got to University Arena for an afternoon practice, they found a crowd of about 7,000. The average crowd for a game at Georgia Coliseum this season was 6,600.

"We had some guys out there who almost passed out, they were so nervous," said Coach Hugh Durham. "And it wasn't because of the altitude."

Said Heard: "They wanted dunks, so we gave 'em a few every now and then. But Coach Durham reminded us we had specific things we needed to get done."

There are critics, loud ones, who say these two teams don't make an attractive match for the final four. Georgia tied for fourth in the SEC during the regular season. N.C. State (24-10) tied for third in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but won the ACC tournament.

"I've heard people say this is just a preliminary to Houston-Louisville, and I think that's a low blow," said Crosby. "We deserve to be here."

Durham went a step further.

"Us getting here may be the best thing that ever happened to college basketball," Durham said. "Now, everybody thinks they can get here."

Georgia is not everybody. This is a team that has won seven straight with a 6-foot-7 center, Terry Fair.

Saturday, Fair will face 6-11 Cozell McQueen, 6-11 Thurl Bailey and 6-7 Lorenzo Charles. "I like playing guys bigger than me," Fair said, "because the majority of the time, I've got what they haven't got--quickness."

N.C. State, with Dereck Whittenburg and Sidney Lowe, has what almost nobody else has--two guards who seem never to make mistakes when it counts.

"Whittenburg and Lowe never miss," said Crosby. "Those guys are responsible for keeping the team together. Vern Fleming and I have to play almost perfect defense on them. It might take a little from us on the offense, but defense is what's important.

"We have to make N.C. State rely on their inside game. If we can pit their inside scoring against ours, I think we can win. But it's gonna be hard to stop those guards."

The toughest of those inside players may be Banks, the 6-6 junior, who averages 14 points and six rebounds per game; the man who kept saying, "We'll be there."

Banks could say, "I told you so." "But that's not my way," he says.

"When we get back home, James will probably say, 'I told you so,' " Crosby said, laughing. "But when he does, it will be a lot of fun to hear."