Felton believes Georgia has more talent than ever

This story has been corrected. Read below

ATHENS, Ga. -- Forward Takais Brown, Georgia's leading scorer in 2006-07, was kicked off the team before this season even started. Guard Mike Mercer, the team's second-leading scorer last season and most athletically gifted player, was shown the door shortly thereafter.

So why does Bulldogs coach Dennis Felton believe his program is better than ever?

"I really like this team," Felton said. "We're as talented as we've ever been."

And, according to Felton and Georgia athletics director Damon Evans, the Bulldogs are performing even better off the court, after a string of off-court problems and suspensions embarrassed the program for the second time in six seasons.

With three returning starters and a slew of freshmen playing valuable minutes, the Bulldogs have won six of their first seven games. But entering this week's Rainbow Classic in Honolulu, they've yet to win a game against a proven opponent. One win came against a Division II opponent. The other five wins were all at home against teams with a combined 16-25 record.

This was supposed to be the season in which Georgia challenged for a spot in its first NCAA Tournament since 2001-02. Felton spent the previous four seasons trying to rebuild a program that was ridiculed nationally because of the infamous academic scandal during previous coach Jim Harrick's tenure.

But with four starters returning and five highly regarded freshmen joining the squad, the Bulldogs were considered a potential sleeper in the SEC. Sundiata Gaines is one of the country's most underrated point guards, and Brown and a deep rotation of other frontcourt players were supposed to give Georgia good balance.

Just when it seemed Felton finally had his program off the ground, the rug was pulled out once again. On Oct. 11, Georgia announced three players had been suspended for failing to meet the school's academic requirements. Mercer, who averaged 13.6 points and 4.4 rebounds before suffering a season-ending knee injury in 2006-07, was suspended from playing in the team's first 15 games. Brown was suspended nine games, and blossoming sophomore Albert Jackson was suspended six games.

Brown, a senior from Flint, Mich., was subsequently dismissed from the team on Oct. 26 for failing drug tests, according to sources with knowledge of the situation. Mercer was dismissed on Nov. 19 for "being a disruption," Felton said at the time. Mercer's dismissal came six days after UGA police searched the dorm room he shared with teammate Billy Humphrey, who was arrested for having a pocket knife in the room.

Mercer and Brown each remained enrolled at Georgia during the fall semester. Mercer, a junior from Snellville, Ga., and one of the most highly decorated players to sign with the Bulldogs in recent memory, has transferred to South Florida. He will be eligible at the end of the fall semester next December.

According to school officials, each of the three suspended players were academically eligible to compete. But the players were suspended for failing to meet Georgia's stringent academic policies, which were put in place on Jan. 8. Under the new guidelines, a student-athlete is suspended from 10 percent of a team's competition for a third unexcused absence from class. After the third absence, each subsequent absence results in an additional 10-percent suspension.

The requirements for attending mandatory study halls, tutoring sessions and academic advising appointments are as stringent. A second absence from any of the aforementioned appointments results in a $10 fine. Players are suspended from 10 percent of a team's competition on the fifth absence, and, like the class attendance policy, each subsequent absence results in an additional 10-percent suspension.

Evans said he installed the new academic policy because he was alarmed by the number of classes and academic appointments being missed by student-athletes in all sports. Georgia ranked last among 12 SEC schools in graduation rates in men's basketball and football, according to the most recent data released by the NCAA in October. Only 19 percent of Georgia basketball players who enrolled in school from 1997-2000 graduated within six years, according to NCAA data.

We lost two good players, but right now I think we're a better team. Takais and Mike are good players, and they're good at what they do. But there were times in games when we were stuck because guys were doing things that didn't need to be done. Right now, all we have to focus on is basketball. We don't have the distractions we normally had the last two years.

--Sundiata Gaines

"It was just mind boggling to me," Evans said. "I was concerned about the mixed signals that were being sent in intercollegiate athletics. If a student-athlete misses a practice or meeting with the coach, there is going to be heck to pay. But if a student-athlete missed a class or an academic appointment, the consequences weren't as severe. I don't want to be in the business of exploiting student-athletes to win games. I believe we can be successful on the field and in the classroom."

Georgia's men's basketball program struggled to meet the new requirements more than any of the school's other teams. According to documents obtained by ESPN.com through state open records laws, the basketball players were first made aware of their suspensions during the spring and summer. One player was suspended on March 6, another on May 4 and the third on July 26. The university redacted the names of the players from correspondence to protect their identities.

By April, Felton had grown increasingly frustrated by his players' unwillingness to do what they were required to do. In an April 3 memo to senior associate athletics director Carla Williams, Felton wrote: "I am losing sleep while I stress over these problems we have had and I suspect you are too. I have never put more energy and passion into this issue as I am now and the results seem to only diminish. … You should also know that I informed them that we will no longer be helping them wake up to get to study hall in the mornings. It's on them. If they want to be Georgia Bulldogs they will do what it takes to be here."

Sources with knowledge of the situation said the players weren't suspended for missing classes. Each was suspended for repeatedly failing to attend appointments with tutors, academic advisers and mentors.

"Everyone wants to say the policy is tough, but we're not asking you to do anything you're not supposed to do," Evans said. "If you have a class, go to class. If you have an academic appointment, go to the appointment. We're not asking you to be Phi Beta Kappa. The appointments prepare you for classes and tests, like practices prepare you for games. If you're supposed to be there, then you'd better be there."

Gaines, a senior from Jamaica, N.Y., said he took 18 hours of classes during the recently-completed fall semester. He had three classes five days a week. Georgia basketball players are required to attend study halls each weekday, from 7 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. Gaines said he also is required to attend eight to 10 academic appointments each week. Then there are practices, weight lifting sessions and games to play.

"My day doesn't end until 9 p.m. on Monday and Wednesday," said Gaines, the team's leading scorer (13.7 points) and rebounder (6.6 boards). "It is a lot to do, but that's what we come to school for. I want to graduate on time. I'm taking heavy loads of classes. I've got to pay for it now to do it."

Gaines is scheduled to graduate in May with a degree in sociology. According to Felton, each of his 13 players is either on track or ahead of schedule to graduate in fove years. Felton said Mercer was on track to graduate before he was dismissed from the team. Brown, a junior college transfer, was eligible to play when he was kicked off the team, according to Felton.

"Mike Mercer was the worst-case guy," Felton said. "He was tardy or missed appointments eight times out of more than 200 appointments. That was the worst-case scenario. Am I happy he missed appointments at all? No. We just have high, high standards here. You had a scenario where two guys were struggling with it. Mike and Takais had difficulties with it because they were determined not to do what they were required to do."

While Georgia's basketball program lagged behind its SEC competition in graduation rates, the Bulldogs fared much better in terms of the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate, which calculates the academic progress of current players. According to the most recent APR data released by the NCAA in April, Georgia was second in the SEC -- behind only Vanderbilt -- with a score of 959. The APR requires student-athletes to complete 40 percent of their degree requirements by the end of the second year in school, 60 percent by the end of the third and 80 percent by the end of the fourth. A score of 925 out of 1,000 means a school is graduating roughly 60 percent of its players.

"Obviously, basketball has somewhat figured it out and made sure our student-athletes are aware they have to go to class and have to go to their appointments," Evans said. "I don't think it's ever too much when you're talking about academics because academics are most important. I understand student-athletes have a lot on their plates, but academics have to be the first priority."

Humphrey, a junior from Dacula, Ga., said he and his teammates had to learn to adapt to the new rules.

"Being a veteran now, I'm used to it," said Humphrey, who averages a team-high 13.7 points. "It's not as easy as people believe it is sometimes. It's tough, man. You're trying to live and be a regular student and try to have some fun. But you're required to be somewhere at 7 a.m. every day. It's like our jobs, really, and you have to take on those responsibilities."

Humphrey, 20, was involved in the most recent black eye for Georgia basketball. On Nov. 13, UGA police officers responded to a complaint at a university residence hall. While removing trash that had been left in one of the study lounges, a custodian found a "substance that looked like marijuana," according to a UGA police report obtained by ESPN.com. Police officers obtained a search warrant and searched the dorm room shared by Humphrey and Mercer. The officers didn't find illegal drugs, but they discover a pocket knife "having a blade longer than two inches," according to the report. The knife was discovered in a jacket that belonged to Humphrey.

The police officers obtained a felony arrest warrant for Humphrey and charged him with possession of a weapon on school property. Humphrey was suspended from playing in the Bulldogs' second game against Grambling State but was reinstated days later. He entered a pre-trial diversion program and must complete 80 hours of community service. If Humphrey stays out of legal trouble for 18 months, the charges will be dismissed.

"We've had a four-year string of success of our guys doing the right things, being well-behaved and representing their school the right way," Felton said. "We've had one player get in trouble in four years, and that was Billy's pocket knife arrest. We've had one brush with the law in four years."

Mercer was dismissed from the team less than a week after Humphrey's arrest. Gaines said the Bulldogs are a better team without Brown and Mercer.

"We lost two good players, but right now I think we're a better team," Gaines said. "Takais and Mike are good players, and they're good at what they do. But there were times in games when we were stuck because guys were doing things that didn't need to be done. Right now, all we have to focus on is basketball. We don't have the distractions we normally had the last two years. That makes it better for the coaches, as well as the players."

Felton is hoping his team's progress off the court will correlate into more victories. The Bulldogs were close to reaching the NCAA Tournament last season, starting 5-2 in SEC play. But after Mercer injured his knee at South Carolina on Feb. 10, Georgia finished 8-8 in league play and lost to eventual national champion Florida in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament. The Bulldogs played in the NIT and lost at Air Force in the second round.

"Obviously, we were about as close as we could be last year," Felton said. "We made it back to the postseason and won. Getting to the NCAA Tournament is the next step."

Georgia is trying to help Felton get there quicker. The school recently completed construction of a new $30 million practice facility for the school's basketball and gymnastic teams. It includes new offices for coaches, practice courts, players' lounge and locker room and a 17,000-square-foot weight room for all sports except football.

The renewed commitment by Georgia helped Felton sign one of his best recruiting classes in November. Howard Tompkins, one of the country's top frontcourt prospects from Norcross, Ga., was the prize of Felton's class.

"What's going on right now is all good stuff," Felton said.

And the Bulldogs finally seem ready to overcome their checkered past.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

In a Dec. 18 story about the Georgia men's basketball program, the team's pace of players on track to graduate was noted incorrectly. The team's 13 players are on track or ahead of schedule to graduate in five years.