ATHENS, Ga. -- Former Georgia basketball coach Jim Harrick is like the gift that keeps giving and giving. Who wouldn't want fruitcake that leaves you with lingering indigestion four years later? Or a Chia Pet that grows a foul-smelling coat each time the NCAA releases its annual graduation report?
More than three years after Dennis Felton replaced Harrick as the Bulldogs' coach in the wake of one of the worst academic scandals in recent college athletics history, Felton is still fighting to overcome the program's forgettable past. But in the early part of his fourth season at Georgia, Felton can finally see light at the end of the tunnel, as dim as it might have once seemed.
"To be honest, I never really put a time frame on it," Felton said. "I just knew I wanted to get back as quickly as we could. I knew it was going to be a very, very long road back. It eventually became obvious that the situation was more bizarre and challenging than any situation I'd seen in my 20 years in the business. It was a situation where things were going to get worse before they got better."
Things are finally beginning to get better for the Bulldogs, who have a 6-1 record going into Saturday's game against No. 16 Gonzaga (ESPN2, 5 p.m. ET) at the Arena at Gwinnett Center in suburban Atlanta. Georgia won its only road game 87-86 at Wake Forest on Dec. 2 and has beaten lesser teams such as Southern, Division II Valdosta State, South Carolina State, Alabama A&M and Gardner-Webb by an average of 41 points. Georgia's only loss was a 70-67 defeat to Western Kentucky on Nov. 14, a game in which the Bulldogs played without two key contributors and blew a 10-point lead in the final six minutes.
"We've progressed a lot," Felton said. "We still have a lot of maturing to do as a team. We still have many corners to turn, but I feel really good about the progress we've made and continue to make."
Playing teams such as Gonzaga will give Felton a better gauge of how well his team can compete in the rugged SEC, where three teams are ranked in the top 15 of the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll. Gonzaga is one of four ranked teams the Bulldogs will play during a demanding three-week stretch; they also play No. 7 Wisconsin on Dec. 31 and at No. 5 Florida on Jan. 6. Plus, Georgia plays road games at rival Georgia Tech on Dec. 22 and at surprising No. 25 Clemson on Dec. 28.
"It's going to be a really, really challenging month," Felton said. "Playing those teams is really going to tell us a lot about ourselves and challenge us in a severe way. But it also provides us with some tremendous opportunities."
Felton hopes his team is finally ready to take advantage of those opportunities. The Bulldogs have 10 scholarship players who are healthy, more than they had in each of Felton's first three seasons. After Felton inherited four seniors from Harrick, his first Georgia squad went 16-15 in 2003-04, losing at Iowa State in the first round of the NIT. Then the rebuilding job really started. During the 2004-05 season, the Bulldogs relied exclusively on freshmen, sophomores and walk-ons and struggled to an 8-20 record, a woeful 2-14 in the SEC. Last season, the Bulldogs battled a slew of injuries and finished 15-15, 5-11 in the SEC.
"The program has come a long way since my freshman season," said guard Levi Stukes, one of two seniors on the roster. "The program is just moving forward. The second year was rough. The third year was better and hopefully this season will turn out even better."
Felton believes he has enough talented players to make it happen. Sophomore guard Mike Mercer, the most highly regarded player to sign with Georgia during Felton's tenure, is beginning to live up to his lofty reputation. Mercer, who picked the Bulldogs over Florida and UCLA, is averaging 17.6 points, 4.1 rebounds and 4 assists. The 6-foot-4 native of Snellville, Ga., worked in the offseason to improve his jumper and has become a stout perimeter defender.
"I think the biggest key has been his maturity," Felton said. "He has really matured a lot. He's become more of a student of the game and has learned how to play hard all the time and how to practice consistently. He's learned how to play the game and utilize his special skills."
Besides Mercer, the Bulldogs have an abundance of potent perimeter scorers. Sophomore guard Billy Humphrey is averaging 11.1 points and is shooting 55.9 percent on 34 3-point attempts. Stukes is shooting 61.5 percent on 26 3-point attempts and averages 10.7 points. Junior point guard Sundiata Gaines of Jamaica, N.Y., averages 8.1 points, 5 rebounds and 5.7 assists.
"Our guards are great," junior forward Takais Brown said. "When you have shooters like that, you have to respect all of them."
Brown, a juco transfer from Southeastern Illinois College, is a big reason the Bulldogs are shooting so well from the perimeter. In the past, Georgia wasn't strong enough in the frontcourt to open up shots for its perimeter shooters. But with Brown averaging 16.6 points and 5 rebounds in five games, defenders are now hesitant to double-team perimeter players and ignore him. Brown, a 6-foot-8, 250-pound native of Flint Mich., was a third-team juco All-American last season and chose the Bulldogs over Cincinnati, Indiana, Purdue and Minnesota.
"One thing we were lacking was a great inside presence," Humphrey said. "Takais takes on a lot of the load and opens up a lot of shots on the perimeter and vice versa."
Brown isn't alone in the paint. The Bulldogs have three players taller than 6-foot-10: junior Dave Bliss, sophomore Rashaad Singleton and freshman Albert Jackson. Singleton, a 7-footer from Campbellton, Fla., has started seven games and is averaging 6.3 points and 4.9 rebounds. Jackson, a 7-footer from Kentucky who played last season at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia, is shooting 70.8 percent and averages 6 points and 5.3 rebounds.
"This is our most complete team as far as having SEC-caliber talent, good depth and balance with good frontcourt players," Felton said. "We were still developing personnel inside. We knew we still needed to upgrade our inside guys. Takais is a very good player who also is big and strong and athletic. He's an SEC-caliber player who gives us the best chance we've had to score inside."
Like most of the players before him, Brown had to adjust to Felton's stringent rules. Brown was indefinitely suspended from the team in October after he fell behind in his courses. Brown said he was taking five classes this semester and wasn't used to the work load. He dropped an African-American literature course and remains enrolled in political science, statistics, Swahili and sociology courses.
Regardless, Felton suspended Brown from the team and wouldn't let him practice or play in games. He missed the Bulldogs' exhibition contest and the first two games and didn't return until a 105-74 win over Valdosta State on Nov. 18. Brown still isn't in the starting lineup.
"I was shocked, to tell you the truth," Brown said. "It shocked me. I didn't see it coming at all. In the past, I'd been a student who didn't do much the first half of the semester and then did excellent in the second half and it evened out in the end."
Felton requires all of his players to attend two-hour study hall sessions six days a week. Felton said players can work their way out of study hall by maintaining a 3.0 grade point average. Other players are required to attend additional tutoring sessions and study halls. Brown said he is required to attend study hall four hours a day.
Felton has relaxed other rules. When the coach first arrived at Georgia, he didn't permit players to wear earrings or facial hair and there were mandatory 7 a.m. team breakfasts each morning. Felton has since rescinded those policies.
"He's relaxed a lot," Humphrey said. "I heard stories about how he used to act. When he came in, he had to draw the line because a lot of players weren't taking him seriously. A lot of his rules have to do with more than basketball. He's trying to shape us into men. It took some getting used to."
Still, much of Felton's good work goes unnoticed because of the program's sins of the past. Georgia was blistered by an NCAA report in September that revealed only 9 percent of its men's basketball players who enrolled in school from 1996 to 1999 graduated within six years (one of the 11 players signed by former coaches Tubby Smith, Ron Jirsa and Harrick). The Bulldogs' mark tied for next-to-worst among 318 Division I-A basketball teams.
"We had some explaining to do," Felton said. "It's not a difficult thing to explain. It's not hard to point out that the news is fairly ancient. It's not hard to explain that there's a new day at Georgia. There are some things out there that linger. But one thing is for sure -- we have to be more careful than anybody out there as far as academic integrity and how academics relate to our program."
Felton said Stukes and Newman, the team's only seniors, are on track to graduate next spring. Felton said nearly all of his team's undergraduates are ahead of pace to graduate in less than five years. The 2003 freshman class -- the first signed by Felton -- should have a 100 percent graduation rate when that data is released in four years, Felton said.
"Of course, I'm disappointed with our graduation rates and where we're currently at," Georgia athletic director Damon Evans said. "But this is a process and something that takes time. It's not going to happen overnight. But I'm confident in what Dennis is doing and what our academic support people are doing. There's no question we've got to get better at graduating our student-athletes."
Felton and Evans said Georgia's graduation rates will improve only slightly over the next four years. Most of Harrick's signees from 1999 to 2002 left school without graduating. In the spring of 2003, Harrick was forced to resign and his son and assistant, Jim Harrick Jr., was fired after former player Tony Cole accused them of breaking NCAA rules. An investigation found Harrick Jr. paid Cole's bills, did schoolwork and taught a sham class on basketball coaching.
The Bulldogs were later placed on four years' NCAA probation and lost one scholarship for three straight seasons.
Nearly four years later, Felton is still cleaning up the mess, including the damaging graduation rates.
"It's just like all those years we spent battling the perception that we were going to be slammed by the NCAA," Felton said. "It would be one thing if it was the reality of Georgia basketball today. That it's not [the reality] makes it harder to swallow. ... I think we're past the worst part. Now we don't have to spend the first 30 minutes of every conversation with recruits explaining what in the world went wrong with Georgia basketball."
Instead, Felton can talk about his promising on-court product and much-needed facility improvements. In March, the Bulldogs will move into a new $30 million annex to Stegeman Coliseum. The addition will include new coaches' offices, locker rooms, lounges, weight room and practice courts.
"We're very serious about basketball," Evans said. "That facility is a statement in and of itself. I feel like we've got to give our student-athletes and coaches the resources to compete at the highest level. That facility is a statement of that. I truly believe we can have great basketball at the University of Georgia."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.