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Mike Fish Straight Shooting

Getting the last laugh

Felton hopes to prove surprising Georgia is no joke

Posted: Thursday March 11, 2004 8:13PM; Updated: Friday March 12, 2004 9:44AM
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  Dennis Felton
Dennis Felton has cleaned up the Georgia program and will get a chance at the postseason.
AP

ATLANTA -- OK, the no-brainer final exam was a bad joke that brought Georgia basketball unwanted notoriety, but Dennis Felton has heard enough. He's tired of his program finding its way into Jay Leno's late-night monologue. He's tired of the cracks from nationally syndicated radio host Don Imus and sports columnists coast to coast.

You have to understand Felton is an Air Force brat, the Mr. Clean ushered in after the firing of Jim Harrick and his son, Jim Jr., the ex-assistant who taught the infamous "Coaching Principles and Strategies of Basketball.'' The inherited mess obviously doesn't bear Felton's fingerprints. Yet he and his program struggle to escape the Harrick years, even while making an improbable run at an NCAA tournament bid.

"There's nothing we can do about it now, but we're going to go about our business and command people's respect,'' said Felton. "It doesn't affect rebuilding, because we're building. Georgia has never had great success in basketball. We want to build it into something great.''

It's tough to argue with the foundation laid so far. Felton has pieced together an undersized group that dresses five non-scholarship players -- the key is four quality senior starters -- and led them to the NCAA bubble. The dream stayed alive another day as the Bulldogs dismantled Auburn 73-59 in the first round of the SEC tournament Thursday.

Back in December, Leno might have poked fun at the Big Dance idea after Georgia fell by 20 to Winthrop -- at home. But if the Bulldogs (16-12) can handle Kentucky for a third time this season when they play Friday, the NCAA selection committee might not be able to ignore them, especially when wins against Georgia Tech and Florida are also factored in.

"Who ever would have thought Georgia-Kentucky would be such a big event?'' said Felton, a former Western Kentucky coach who needs at least another W against the Wildcats, who happen to be led by former Georgia coach Tubby Smith. "But it is. It's a big event for us.''

Just stepping out in the SEC tourney is a big deal. This time last year, UGA president Michael Adams and AD Vince Dooley pulled the scandal-ridden program from postseason play, firing Harrick and forcing the team to sit out the SEC and NCAA tournaments. That squad might have made some noise behind first-round NBA pick Jarvis Hayes.

This team is less talented, but it's not one Kentucky or anyone else can dismiss. Rashad Wright ranks as one of the country's best and least-heralded point guards and his backcourt mate, freshman Levi Stukes, hit Auburn for 25 points (8-of-12 on 3-pointers).

Auburn (14-14) came in losing eight of its previous 11 and was obviously outclassed, even as alum Charles Barkley sat courtside. The Bulldogs sped to an 11-0 lead and you sensed Auburn wasn't coming back after trailing 42-22 at halftime.

What got it done for Georgia was hustle on the boards and a defend-or-die philosophy the players have bought into. And, yes, a head coach who rarely takes a seat and seemingly plays every play.

Impeccably attired in a suit right out of GQ, Felton was a sight to watch working the sidelines. He stomped his leather heels on the hardwood to get his players' attention. He shuffled back and forth in a defensive stance, flapping his arms. At one point, he and Wright worked in such unison that an Auburn player must have thought he dribbled into a double team along the UGA bench.

So as Georgia moves up in class, can the Bulldogs slay high-and-mighty Kentucky a third time? Can the young coach make another defensive stand? Or conjure up another winning motivational spiel?

"I believe in the power of words,'' Felton says. "I put a lot of thought into what I say to a team. I'm not sure what I'll say, yet.''

Kentucky can only hope he remains at a loss for words.

Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.

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