Commentary

Felton gets vote of confidence after leading Georgia to SEC title

Originally Published: March 15, 2008
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- Even before Georgia basketball coach Dennis Felton finished cutting down the nets at Georgia Tech's Alexander Memorial Coliseum on Sunday, athletics director Damon Evans was all but reaching for the school's checkbook in his back pocket.

Shortly after Felton finished guiding the Bulldogs through one of the most improbable weekends in college basketball history, Evans ended weeks of speculation by saying Felton would return as Georgia's coach next season.

"He's our coach," Evans said. "I'm excited he's our coach. He'll definitely be back."

After Felton's team went from worst to first in the SEC in less than 36 hours by winning three games in two days, including a 66-57 victory over Arkansas in Sunday's championship game of the SEC tournament, what else could Evans possibly do?

"To do this, this is more miraculous than anything I've ever been through," Felton said. "When you have to win three games in two days, that takes it over the top. I don't know if I'll ever have an experience that daunting and that successful."

Georgia president Michael Adams said he would receive a recommendation from Evans in the next few days and make a final determination on Felton's status, but that seems to be a technicality at this point.

"I've never heard of an SEC champion coach going anywhere," Adams said.

Felton, who five years ago inherited a program mired in NCAA probation for violations committed during former coach Jim Harrick's tenure, seemed relieved his job was safe -- even if it took one of the most unlikely feats in school history to do it.

"It was difficult to deal with," Felton said. "It's the first time in my life I've been in that position. I always pride myself in keeping my composure and staying poised. I always felt like I was doing a good job and doing the right things to build Georgia basketball into a success. It was hard for me to defend myself when I was proud enough and confident enough in the job I was doing."

[+] EnlargeDennis Felton
AP Photo/Phil CoaleDennis Felton was on the hot seat, but Georgia athletic director said after the Bulldogs' remarkable SEC title that Felton will be back.

As Georgia's players celebrated near midcourt, Felton's wife, Melanie, stood nearby with tears streaming down her cheeks. A week that started with her husband firmly on the hot seat and ended with Georgia becoming only the third team in the tournament's modern era to win four games in four days -- or, in the Bulldogs' case, fewer than four days -- proved to be too much.

"I knew something good had to come out of this," she said. "Doing it the right way is the only way. You know what? It's been pretty emotional. I just stayed positive and had faith. When we came into this tournament, it was a fresh start and it's anybody's tournament. When it's March Madness, anybody can win."

But when the SEC tournament started on Thursday, one day before a tornado heavily damaged the Georgia Dome and forced the SEC to move its games to nearby Georgia Tech, the Bulldogs seemed like the one team that couldn't possibly win. Georgia had lost 10 of its last 12 games and five days earlier had lost to Ole Miss by 14 points in its last regular-season game -- on Senior Day, no less.

So when SEC officials presented Felton with a black pyramid trophy for winning the league's tournament, Evans might have thrown in one of those big cardboard checks that lottery winners receive. Georgia's odds of winning the SEC tournament seemed that slim.

"Somebody could have made a lot of money if you'd bet it," Adams joked.

Georgia has hit the jackpot that has eluded it for so long, earning its first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2002. The No. 14 seed Bulldogs will play No. 3 seed Xavier in the first round Thursday in Washington, D.C.

[+] EnlargeGeorgia Bulldogs
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesGeorgia won four SEC regular-season games but found a way to win three games in the SEC tourney.

"Every game this weekend felt like it was for something critical," guard Corey Butler said. "We're going to find a way to keep it going. It really doesn't matter who we're playing. Regardless, we're going to go out and play our hearts out. We weren't supposed to be in this situation to begin with. We just know we want to win."

The Bulldogs proved they wanted to win more than any other team during a tournament most SEC basketball fans won't soon forget. Georgia needed overtime to beat Ole Miss 97-95 in Thursday night's first round. Friday night, while the Bulldogs were waiting in their locker room before playing Kentucky in the quarterfinals, a tornado ripped the roof of the Georgia Dome and left a gaping hole in the arena's north side. The SEC postponed Georgia's game until noon Saturday at Georgia Tech.

With only nine available players, the Bulldogs upset the Wildcats 60-56 in overtime, their first win against Kentucky in nine tries in the SEC tournament. Roughly six hours later, Georgia upset SEC West champion Mississippi State 64-60 in the semifinals. It is believed Georgia is the first Division I college basketball team to win two games in the same day in 56 years.

If that wasn't enough, Georgia still had to beat the Razorbacks to win the SEC's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. If the Bulldogs didn't win, their season would have been over. At 16-16 going into Sunday's game, the Bulldogs would have finished the season with a losing record if they'd lost to the Razorbacks, making them ineligible for even the NIT.

"It was all heart," senior co-captain Dave Bliss said. "We just came into the tournament more determined than everyone else. I think it just shows what kind of team we are. We've had to overcome a lot of adversity."

Georgia's season began when two starters from a year ago, guard Mike Mercer and leading scorer Takais Brown, were kicked off the team for disciplinary reasons. Sophomore forward Albert Jackson was suspended for the first six games for academic reasons, and sophomore center Rashad Singleton quit the team in January because he was unhappy about his playing time. Promising freshmen Chris Barnes and Jeremy Jacob suffered season-ending injuries.

So even winning three games in two days with such limited depth didn't seem insurmountable.

"When I thought of all the things that happened this year, I thought, 'Of course, we'd have a tornado,'" Melanie Felton said. "I just think [Dennis] doesn't give up and he's not a quitter. He works hard and he's not going to give up. He's never going to quit."

Neither did the Bulldogs, even when the odds seemed so stacked against them. The team that won only four games in two months of SEC play won four games in less than four days in Atlanta.

"It's something special," said guard Sundiata Gaines, who was named MVP of the SEC tournament. "Four games in three days. Nobody else can say they've done that."

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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