Season preview: HoopsHD interviews Cleveland State head coach Dennis Felton

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We continue our season preview coverage with Cleveland State head coach Dennis Felton. I wonder if the NCAA welcomed Cal Baptist and North Alabama to D-1 this year because they were running out of schools that Coach Felton does not have a connection to: he has been a player at Howard, assistant at Delaware/Tulane/St. Joseph’s/Providence/Clemson/Tulsa, and head coach at Western Kentucky/Georgia/Cleveland State. His 1st year in Cleveland was not a winning 1 but after reflecting on his 6 postseason appearances in an 8-year span from 2001-2008 I do not expect it will take very long for him to turn things around. HoopsHD’s Jon Teitel got to chat with Coach Felton about the unforgettable 2008 SEC tourney and the time he spent working with Steve Kerr/Gregg Popovich.

You were born in Tokyo and lived all over the world: how did you 1st get into basketball? When I was living in Germany at age 10 I saw a flyer on a bulletin board encouraging kids to sign up for a basketball league and I told my dad that I wanted to sign up. I was terrible that 1st year but fell in love with the sport.

You made the MEAC All-Academic team at Howard: how much importance do you place on academics? It comes naturally for me because my parents would not have it any other way. Education was a non-negotiable part of our lives so we just did our best and planned to go to college. I was far from a brilliant student but those simple values paid off: go to class, do your work on time, and take pride in doing your best. I enjoyed history classes and majored in radio/TV/film production.

In the 1997 NCAA tourney as an assistant to Rick Barnes at Clemson, you had a 6-PT 2-OT loss to #1-seed Minnesota despite overcoming a 15-PT 1st half deficit: where does that rank among the most devastating losses of your career? That year was memorable for me because we started with an epic OT win on the national stage over Kentucky at the RCA Dome and then ended our season with an incredible game against Minnesota. Both teams felt quite confident that they would reach the Final 4 because the most likely Elite 8 matchup was going to be UCLA. We were tough mentally/physically and had great momentum going into the Sweet 16, which made it that much more devastating. Coach Haskins was a good friend of mine and always complained to us that we cost him the national title because Harold Jamison set a legal screen on Eric Harris and dislocated his shoulder. He was the heart/soul of that team as the PG.

In the 2008 SEC tourney as head coach at Georgia, you won 4 games in 3 days (due to a tornado) to win the title despite going 4-12 in conference play and only having 8 healthy scholarship players: what are your memories of that wild weekend? We staggered into the end of the season with a 14-PT home loss to Mississippi, who turned out to be our 1st round opponent in the conference tourney. We knew exactly why we lost so it really allowed us to focus on how to win that 1st game, which is the key for any postseason run. As quickly as we got some momentum, the tornado hit and threw the tourney into utter disarray. I remember fighting for our lives with the SEC to keep it going: it was obvious that our only chance to make the NCAA tourney was to win the SEC tourney and we did not deserve to lose that opportunity. We were in the Georgia Dome literally from 7PM until 1:30AM, which is when we finally realized the devastation from the storm in downtown Atlanta. Around 2:30AM we were told that the plan was to play at noon, with the winner playing again a few hours later against a totally-fresh opponent. We had some concerns but talked about getting refocused on our next game: we refused to be distracted from our goal and let our bodies do what they were capable of doing without taking a single possession off. We got off to great starts and played with a lead for most of the tourney. 2 of our games went into OT and we had to finish them without our best player (Sundiata Gaines) so we were even more short-handed than usual. I have won 7 championships in my career but none more unlikely than that 1.

You spent a few years in the NBA: what did you learn from working with great basketball minds like Steve Kerr/Gregg Popovich? I wanted to work in the NBA for a variety of reasons and was fortunate to work for the Spurs because I identified with what they were about. Kerr is a Spur at heart after winning a few titles with them: 1 of the biggest lessons I took from him was how to be a great teammate and share the experience with your fellow players. We worked hard but also worked smart and at the end of the day it all comes down to relationships: you need to have faith/trust in each other. It was good to get that confirmation of my own values at the highest level of the game. You need talent but you do not need to be the most talented if you have the best team. Steve gets buy-in from all his players.

Last year was your 1st season as head coach at Cleveland State: what was the best part, and what was the not-best part? It was pretty much all good. We knew that we would be building from scratch for 2 years in a row since last year’s team was so senior-dominant but most of the guys were all-in to take advantage of opportunities they had not previously had at the college level. We were losing some tough games where we came up just a little short but they kept believing in what we were teaching/preaching. They kept coming back to the gym for more and were excited for the chance to get better, which is what we did most weeks. We learned how to win close games during the latter part of the season and made a fun run in the Horizon tourney (3 straight single-digit wins before losing to Wright State). I was really happy for those seniors who had enough dedication to stay with it and turn the corner.

You lost 4 of your top-6 scorers from last year (Kenny Carpenter/Bobby Word/Anthony Wright/Jamarcus Hairston): how will you try to replace all of that offense? We will actually be more talented this year: recruiting went very well as we brought in some good players who will fit into our program. We have a lot more answers for putting the ball in the basket now but the major challenge will be that we might be the least experienced team in the nation. We only have 2 significant returning players so we are trying to learn/mature as rapidly as we possibly can.

Last year your team set school records with 294 3PM/863 3PA: how crucial is the 3-PT shot to your offensive philosophy? We play position-less basketball and play with space/pace. We have a team full of versatile guys who can play anywhere on the court. We play a style that includes significant use of the 3-PT line. We play spread pick and roll with a lot of flow and an open rim so you need players who are empowered to shoot. We expect to make major use of the 3-PT line even though we were not a great 3-PT shooting team last year. Hopefully we will have better shooting talent this year and become more efficient.

Your non-conference schedule includes games against Ohio State/DePaul: which of these games do you feel will present your biggest test? With this team we will be pushed to our limits every single night starting right out of the gate. Hopefully we will be able to figure out a way but I do not know how many coaches would enjoy starting the season at Davidson. Their offense is so intricate so we will find out really fast that they are at a different level when they put us into the blender!

What are your goals for the upcoming season, and what are your expectations for the upcoming season? This year will be predictable in some ways but unpredictable in others. I do not know how quickly the young guys will put it together but as the year plays out we will be 1 of the most improved teams in the country from the start of the year to the end of the year. We just need to keep growing week by week.

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