Charlotte – Mark Fox has received and deserves much credit for lifting the Georgia Bulldogs to the NCAA tournament in his second season. When Fox arrived from Nevada in the spring of 2009, this was a program with little credibility and no real reason to believe anything would get any better soon. But as we prepare to watch the Bulldogs work against Washington on Friday night, it seems the appropriate time to reconsider …
Dennis Felton was fired by then-athletic director Damon Evans on Jan. 29, 2009 — 10 1/2 months after Felton saved his job by leading Georgia to the bolt-from-the-blue SEC tournament title and NCAA tournament appearance. The knocks on Felton were many: He hadn’t won big, he hadn’t connected with fans and (this above all) he hadn’t recruited well enough in a state where basketball recruits are plentiful.
But when we look on Fox’s second Georgia team, we see his predecessor’s recruits. Only one of the top six Bulldogs — guard Gerald Robinson Jr., a transfer — arrived on Fox’s watch. Big men Jeremy Price and Chris Barnes were signed in 2007. Felton’s 2008 recruiting class was his best, although it didn’t seem nearly as good as it does now.
Trey Thompkins, Travis Leslie and Dustin Ware were the key figures in a group rated the nation’s 28th-best by Rivals. When it became clear that Felton’s job was no longer secure in 2008, he would point to those incoming recruits as cause for hope. Evans didn’t really buy it; had Georgia lost at any point in the 2008 SEC tournament, he’d have fired Felton then. When Georgia won the relocated event on the weekend of the tornado, the AD tabled the matter and let the coach stay.
By January 2009, the new recruits hadn’t made an imprint. A 23-point home loss to the worst Kentucky team of the past 20 years prompted this correspondent to write that Felton had to go, and 10 days later Georgia lost at Florida by 26 to fall to 9-11 and 0-5 in SEC play. Evans fired Felton the next morning.
Three years later, the freshmen of 2008-2009 are rather different. Thompkins and Leslie will surely become the first and last of Felton’s recruited Bulldogs to be drafted by an NBA team. (Rashad Wright was the final player picked in 2004, but he signed under Jim Harrick.) Thompkins arrived as a four-star recruit; Leslie and Ware as three-star prospects.
Felton inherited Harrick’s mess and couldn’t quite sweep it away. His highest-rated signee, Louis Williams of South Gwinnett, chose the NBA draft. The gifted Mike Mercer hurt his knee in 2007 and then got kicked off the team. Through Felton’s 5 1/2 seasons the Bulldogs’ roster was in constant flux — players left so fast you’d forget they were ever there — but the worst part was that the highest-rated players this state produced didn’t land in Athens. It was no coincidence Felton got fired two weeks after Derrick Favors of South Atlanta chose Georgia Tech.
Time, however, can do funny things, and time has made us rethink Dennis Felton. Not so much as a coach — he’d had long enough, and he simply hadn’t won enough — but as the assembler of the recruiting class that has afforded Fox a flying start. Ware has been a solid player, but Thompkins and Leslie have risen far above their recruiting rankings. And all three are from Georgia.
Would they have developed under Felton the way they have under Fox? Probably not. Felton had no flair for designing an offense. But was Fox a lucky man for landing with a new team that had so much raw talent? Absolutely. Fox has turned Thompkins and Leslie into fine collegiate players, but Felton brought them to Athens. If nothing else, he got that part right.
By Mark Bradley