SEC Finals preview
March 16, 2008
By Brian Edwards
When you do things the right way and don’t ever take short cuts, you’re sometimes going to take your lumps, especially when you walk into a job in need of a complete overhaul. Of course, that’s what Dennis Felton inherited following the Tony Cole/Jim Harrick(s) Debacle.
He had one task upon arriving in Athens – clean house. And he did so promptly, jettisoning Steve Thomas and Wayne Arnold out of town immediately. Many others would follow as Felton established a program that did things the right way.
He had a decent first season with a few Harrick leftovers like Rashad Wright, Damien Wilkins, Jonas Hayes and Chris Daniels, who led UGA to a pair of wins over UK and barely missed out on an at-large bid, instead settling for a trip to the NIT.
In Year 2, Felton had no chance with an inferior group of personnel that was easily the worst in the SEC. In Year 3, some progress was made and another NIT berth was earned.
Last season, Georgia might’ve made the NCAA Tournament but second-leading scorer Mike Mercer tore his ACL and Channing Toney decided to transfer to UAB. Nevertheless, Felton’s fifth season was supposed to be the breakout year.
However, UGA’s 2007-2008 season began in inauspicious fashion, as Mercer and Takais Brown (the team’s leading scorer and rebounder the previous year) were initially suspended and eventually booted from the program.
Suddenly, the Dawgs were once again facing an SEC slate with just eight scholarship players available. The result was 11 losses in UGA’s last 13 regular-season games.
Over the last two weeks, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has speculated about Felton’s future on a quasi-daily basis. The thinking being attendance is down, losses are coming in abundance and Felton is either running too tight a ship or is making poor decisions on the recruiting trail, as evidenced by the mass defections of players on a yearly basis.
You had to feel for Felton, who is clearly an excellent coach whose class and character is respected by 100 percent of his peers in the coaching business.
With all that said, when Georgia took the floor Thursday night against a desperate Ole Miss team vying for an NCAA Tournament berth, it seemed clear as day that Felton’s days were likely numbered in Athens unless the Dawgs made an improbable run of some sort.
Maybe – just maybe – a win over the Rebels could help. A trip to the SEC semifinals would make it extremely tough for Georgia AD Damon Evans to hand Felton a pink slip. But seriously, who on earth saw that coming? Anyone?
But now it is – surely! – impossible to fathom Evans canning Felton after what has transpired in the last 72 hours. You want a Cinderella story before Selection Sunday even arrives? You got it – the 2007-2008 Georgia Bulldogs, who will shockingly try to earn the SEC’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament if they can find a way to beat Arkansas in Sunday’s finals.
In the history of Division-I college basketball, never has a team been asked to play a doubleheader. Not once – ever! But on Saturday, a Georgia team that’s been playing with eight scholarship players since January, not only played a twin bill, but won both times (over NCAA Tournament bound squads) to keep its season alive.
In both games, UGA’s best player Sundiata Gaines fouled out and his excellent, albeit tough-luck, career seemed to be over. But yet it shockingly, improbably and unbelievably lives to fight another day.
Just hours after beating Kentucky in overtime thanks to an audacious 3-pointer from UGA freshman Zac Swansey, who drained a fadeaway 22-footer off a reverse pivot with a man in his face with 1.1 seconds remaining, the Dawgs knocked off the SEC West champs, Mississippi State, to advance to face the Razorbacks at 3:30 Eastern on Sunday.
Even though Gaines fouled out against the Bulldogs with 7:12 left, he still was the catalyst with 20 points, five rebounds and four assists in just 25 minutes of action.
Sans their best player at crunch time in both games, the Dawgs came away with a 60-56 win over UK as four-point underdogs, in addition to beating Rick Stansbury’s squad by a 64-60 count as 11-point underdogs. Gamblers backing UGA on the money line are loving it, cashing tickets that paid out to the tune of a plus 550 comeback (paid $550 on $100 wagers).
Tennessee came into the SEC Tournament as the even-money favorite in search of its first tourney title since 1979. However, the Volunteers barely survived a game effort from South Carolina in Round 1, needing yet another clutch 3-pointer from Chris Lofton to knock off the Gamecocks.
But on Saturday at Alexander Memorial Coliseum, where the event was moved after Friday’s tornado damaged the Georgia Dome, the Vols lost a 92-91 decision to Arkansas as six-point favorites. The Razorbacks won outright as ‘dogs, hooking up money-line backers with a plus 220 return.
The 183 combined points obliterated the total that closed in the 146-147 range.
Las Vegas Sports Consultants opened Arkansas as a nine-point favorite with a total of 130, but most books have the Hogs at eight with the total adjusted to 131. The Dawgs are plus 320 on the money line.
ESPN2 will provide television coverage at 3:30 Eastern.
**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**
--For every SEC Tournament, thousands of Kentucky fans invade Atlanta sporting their Big Blue colors. Sometimes as many as 15-20 thousand UK faithful make the trip. The guess here is that this was the worst trip ever for all of ‘em. For starters, they never got to see their team play. With a tornado touching down in downtown Atlanta on Friday night, damage to the Georgia Dome forced Friday night’s UGA-UK game to be moved to Georgia Tech for a noon tip Saturday. Since Alexander Memorial Coliseum only holds about 9,000, the SEC was at a loss for how to handle the ticket situation. Therefore, the league opted to permit only media members, cheerleaders, band members and family members from each team to attend the games, creating a high-school-like environment at the arena formerly known as the “Thriller Dome” during Bobby Cremins’ tenure.
--UK’s Ramel Bradley has enjoyed an outstanding senior season, but he was horrible against the Dawgs in the SEC Tourney quarterfinals. Bradley made just 4-of-17 shots from the field and committed five turnovers.
--The SEC might've lost millions by refunding tickets for Saturday and Sunday's sessions, but I tell you who most likely made out real fat -- The Pink Pony and The Cheetah, Atlanta's two top "men's adult entertainment establishments." I mean, seriously, I bet the house was full of Big Blue fans at 11:00 a.m. slamming liquor drinks -- and lots of 'em -- pre-game.
--Tennessee is still very much alive in the hunt for a No. 1 seed, but Memphis most likely clinched the top seed in the South region by destroying Conference USA foes in the league tourney. That would mean the Tigers would play their first and second-round games in nearby Little Rock, Ark.
--As a Gator fan and alum, I hope Billy Donovan advised his players of two words for the flight back from Atlanta to Gainesville after Alabama sent UF packing Thursday night. Those two words should’ve been: “NO TALKING!” And just as I wrote the other day, the Gators deserve to be sent west of the Rockies for a first-round game in the NIT on a school night.
Brian Edwards can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.