Originally created 11/12/06

Now's the time to dream of Georgia Dome date



Dennis Felton wouldn't bite on the irony.

Friday night's tip-off to a new basketball season was still three days away, an event typically lost in the fall shadows on the campus of Georgia's flagship football university.

For this first time since Felton arrived from the basketball-crazed state of Kentucky three years ago to take over the Georgia's shackled program, nobody around Athens, Ga., was particularly interested in talking about Bulldogs football. An encouraging basketball performance would be a welcome diversion from the misery of Georgia's 7-4 football season.

Felton, however, wasn't willing to capitalize on another program's misfortune by raising the wait-til-basketball-season mantra that echoes in places such as his former Commonwealth and along Tobacco Road. Asked what it's like to make the transition from coaching hoops in a basketball state to being in the middle of football territory, Felton paused 15 full seconds before carefully crafting his answer.

"I don't think of Georgia as a football school because we are dominant in most sports and win championships - national championships - across the board," Felton said. "The major sports of football and basketball get all of the attention, but I think Georgia is one of those special places where you can be dominant in both and great at everything. We're trying to get basketball there."

In some ways, that's the story of basketball in this region of the South, where the game generally takes a back seat to gridiron obsession until the holiday bowl season is over and the conference play heats up on the road to the Final Four.

This year, however, that road leads back to the Peach State. The biggest event in college basketball returns to a football hotbed next spring. For only the third time in history, Atlanta will play host to the NCAA Final Four. It's the second time in six years the Georgia Dome will be the destination of every dribbler and dunker in the nation.

Georgia Tech - with a recruiting class so highly regarded that the Yellow Jackets are ranked No. 23 despite coming off a dismal 11-17 season - has perhaps the best hope of playing in April just a couple of miles from its midtown campus. Or maybe South Carolina can pursue the short trip west down Interstate 20 instead of trying to three-peat as NIT champions.

Call me crazy, but George Mason's unlikely roll to the Final Four last year gives renewed hope to many of the 335 Division I college teams trying to bottle a miracle.

Don't you think Bobby Cremins - who made his collegiate coaching return with the College of Charleston on Saturday at Georgia State just across town from the Georgia Tech court that bears his name - believes he can end the season in another corner of the town he made his mark in?

"The expectations are unrealistic," Cremins said recently.

Sure, but now is not the time to let reality spoil the dream. Even at Stegeman Coliseum, where Felton is rebuilding from the scandalous ashes that remained when Jim Harrick left the Bulldogs program.

The fact that Georgia is the 2006-07 home of the national title game gets his promising young squad's attention.

"I think it's intriguing to our players that the Final Four is in Atlanta," Felton said, "but we're building something from the ground floor up and I don't know that anybody is in the frame of mind that we're a Final Four team this year. We want that and we're building toward that and we're fighting to get there. But we're not one of those teams that has earned their way into that conversation yet."

This state isn't too far from the conversation. For all of the attention football gets in this part of the country, basketball is growing in stature. Two No. 1 NBA draft picks since 2001 (Kwame Brown and Dwight Howard) came directly out of Georgia high schools. The crop of youngsters keeps getting better, with Georgia losing South Gwinnett's Louis Williams to the NBA draft two years ago and Georgia Tech luring Howard's former blue-chip teammate Javaris Crittenton to its backcourt this season.

"You can't hold Georgia basketball down," Felton said of the grass-roots development. "The athletes love the game too much so they're going to continue to gravitate toward basketball the way they have. Georgia high school basketball is exploding and the trend cannot be reversed. It's a great game, the kids love it and there's too much talent in this state to ignore it.

"It's the fastest growing sport on the globe. Basketball will eventually overtake soccer as the most popular sport in the world. It's happening before our very eyes worldwide and also here in Georgia."

With all the emerging talent and the game's ultimate showcase right here, maybe we should avert our eyes from the football fields and enjoy the show this season.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com