Felton turns Georgia into obedience school
It would be inaccurate to say that Georgia basketball has gone from Club Med under Jim Harrick to Club Dread under Dennis Felton. But it's generally assumed that players will have to actually attend their "Principles and Strategies of Basketball" class now to get a passing grade.
In other words: Tony Cole doesn't live here anymore.
Easy Street is closed down for repairs. Felton is ordering his players on the road much less traveled at Georgia -- a forced march toward accountability and respectability. It won't be easy, and the new coach offers no apology for that.
Felton arrived from Western Kentucky like a reformist preacher stepping into a bordello. He ordered all the players to move back onto campus. He's scheduled mandatory team breakfasts. He's scheduled two hours of study hall on week nights. He's held long, demanding practices. He's required better dress and grooming. He's kicked off players he can scarcely do without, like center Steve Thomas, and put other valuable Bulldogs on warning, like big man Jonas Hayes.
For a time, the general response to this image makeover was raised eyebrows, slackened jaws and general astonishment. As in, )What's up with this dude?
"I have a certain intensity about me that I guess is different to folks at first pass," Felton allowed. "... When I'm asking them to do things that might be more than they were asked to do before, they might be saying, 'Well, why?' That's human nature. I understand that."
But before the Bulldogs feel too sorry for themselves for winding up with a disciplinarian coach, consider what Felton didn't demand of his players:
Boot camp. Literal boot camp.
For a couple of years at Western Kentucky, Felton put his players through a full week of ROTC drills: the 5 a.m. wakeup calls, the fatigues, the intense physical fitness regimen. (Here's an image: 7-foot, 300-pounder Chris Marcus in combat fatigues, running an obstacle course.)
"We were building team, camaraderie, mind over matter, thinking and operating under duress," Felton said. "We were trying to foster and build leadership."
Why no boot camp for the current Dogs?
"I didn't think this team could handle that this year," he said.
Eradicating Club Med cannot be done in a single boot camp. This will be a gradual battle to win over the hearts and minds of his players.
As with all temperaments and leadership styles, it will all work out if Georgia wins. So far the Bulldogs are 2-0 against faint opposition, and the schedule is more lenient than in the last couple of years. But there is the rather urgent matter of a Saturday trip to Gonzaga.
For a program that saw talent flying off campus after the Harrick travesty, expectations are relatively modest for the next couple of years. Felton has four seniors and seven freshmen on this team -- which means that it will get worse before it gets better. Perhaps much worse.
Felton is prepared for that. He didn't come to Georgia to slap a Band-aid on the problems and then upgrade to another job in 12-24 months. He came to work an ambitious rebuilding job.
"Not only did I expect (a period of struggle), I knew it," Felton said. "I didn't come into this thing thinking about this year or next year. ... I'm not conceding anything, but I'm realistic about facing major challenges this year and even more severe challenges next year. It's going to amount to starting all over two years in a row."
The challenge this year was upgraded right away, when freshman Corey Gibbs was suspended the first 12 games of the season for selling textbooks and supplied for a tidy profit. Coincidentally or not, Gibbs was the only remaining recruit signed by Harrick.
Without Gibbs, Felton has a maximum of seven players he can absolutely count on night-in and night-out. The only three double-digit scorers from last year are gone. The roster has been filled out by a group of walk-ons after a campus-wide tryout.
"I always try to have the most aggressive team on the court, and there's no doubt that will be affected the first couple years," Felton said.
But that won't keep the coach from aggressively shaping his program off the court into what he wants. No, make that what he demands.
The on-campus housing was a major issue at first, but Felton has his reasons -- and they even make sense: The seniors were all off-campus, the freshman were all on-campus, and that's no way to mingle.
"When you're trying to build a team, it just doesn't make any sense at all having the players with any experience and the players with no experience at all only seeing each other at practice," Felton said.
So the seniors were shipped back in. And told to dress nicely. And to be on time.
It was more than Thomas was ready for, so Felton bit the bullet and got rid of what might have been his best player.
"He couldn't do the simple things, like being where you're supposed to be when you're supposed to be there," the coach said. "If practice is at four, be there at four. If study hall is at seven, be there at seven."
Hayes appeared headed to a similar fate, especially after Felton said before the season that the senior appeared to have one foot in and one foot out the door. But Hayes has apparently gotten religion -- and with it playing time. The twin brother of 2003 lottery pick Jarvis Hayes is averaging 30 minutes, 17 points and 7.5 rebounds so far.
"It's smoothing out," Felton said. "You're not asking anybody to do things that don't make any sense."
For the past few years, the Charlotte 49ers were among the most perimeter-dependent teams in America. On Wednesday night, Vanderbilt transfer Brendan Plavich nailed a record 10 treys in leading Charlotte's upset of the defending national champions in the Carrier Dome. And, last year Demon Brown set a Conference USA record for 3-point field goals in a season -- breaking the record held by former 49er Jobey Thomas.
In fact, a 49er has led the league in 3s for five straight seasons now, and Charlotte is the only team in league history to attempt more than 800 threes in a season, having done it in both 1999-2000 and again the following season.
But this year Bobby Lutz has announced his intention to play inside-out. He'd actually like to have someone near the basket touch the ball once in a while, and perhaps even score with it.
So far, pretty good. Center Calvin Clemmons was Charlotte's leading scorer after two games until Plavich went off for 31 against the Orangemen. Clemmons (11 ppg), had just four against Syracuse, but had reached double figures in each of the 49ers' previous two games. Forwards Curtis Withers and Eddie Basden both are averaging nearly 13 points a contest.
Brown, now a senior, is still taking his share of 3s -- 22 in three games. Plavich also has the green light to bomb away (18 of 38 from behind the arc). But the inside game should really pick up if 7-foot freshman Martin Iti develops.
Charlotte's first top-10 national recruit had a disastrous debut, recording no points, no rebounds and four fouls in five minutes in a loss to George Washington. He came back with 10 points, four rebounds and five blocks in a wipeout of North Carolina A&T. He then proved he can stand up to better competition in the Carrier Dome, going for just nine points, but hitting all four of his field goals attempts and grabbing seven rebounds in 21 minutes.
|Games to Watch|
Georgia at Gonzaga
Long road trip to play the tall Zags might be more than Dennis Felton's short-handed team is ready to take on.
Louisville vs. Iowa
in Indianapolis, Saturday
Cardinals finally debut in what could be an up-and-down game, although Rick Pitino says this team will play more zone than usual to compensate for defensive shortcomings.
Austin Peay at Memphis
Tigers shouldn't need a lecture on how dangerous the Governors are. Not after losing to them in the Pyramid last year. Peay returns its top eight players from an NCAA Tournament team.
Notre Dame at Marquette
Fighting Irish pounded the Golden Eagles last year in South Bend on their way to a hot start. Marquette should be primed for revenge in a rivalry that is evoking the sizzle from the Digger-vs.-Al days.
Colorado State at Auburn
Rams and Tigers both are coming off NCAA Tournament appearances and hopeful of another one. Auburn could use something to distract attention from the incredible football coaching debacle at the Craziest Little Village on the Plain.
"It sounded like Hollywood to me." -- Ed Tolley, external counsel for the Georgia Athletic Association, reacting to a letter from the attorney for deposed Bulldogs coach Jim Harrick and Jim Harrick Jr., claiming that the school defamed them.
Pat Forde of the Louisville Courier-Journal is a regular contributor to ESPN.com
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