UGA Basketball to interview Slonaker, Felton

<b>Mark Slonaker</b> has made a habit of rising above the numbers. As a high school player in Rahway, N.J., Slonaker was named MVP of a Christmas tournament in which he scored no points.

Slonaker earned a college scholarship to Georgia despite averaging only 10 points per game as a high school senior. Now comes another opportunity for Slonaker to surpass expectations based solely on more numbers - his 67-104 record as Mercer's head coach.

Georgia has received permission to interview Slonaker as it continues its search for a new head coach.

Georgia athletic director Vince Dooley already has interviewed at least two candidates - former Chicago Bulls coach Tim Floyd and former Georgia and Atlanta Hawks standout Dominique Wilkins. On Tuesday, Dooley also received permission to interview Western Kentucky coach Dennis Felton.

Georgia officials contacted Mercer athletic director Bobby Pope Monday night, and Pope offered an enthusiastic endorsement of Slonaker.

"Mark deserves that opportunity to be interviewed for that job,'' Pope said Wednesday. "If he goes to Georgia, I'll really be happy for him. If he doesn't go, I'll really be happy for us.'' Added Pope: "I don't want to lose Mark Slonaker, but that's the opportunity of a lifetime for him.''

Slonaker, 46, guided Mercer to a 23-6 record and its first Atlantic Sun Conference regular-season championship this year. Mercer's turnaround from a 6-23 mark last season was  the biggest one-year improvement in NCAA history. Critics might look at Slonaker's overall record at Mercer and ask if the 2002-03 season was an anomaly. Instead, Pope says the preceding 6-23 season was the sole exception to a record of consistent improvement after Slonaker inherited a team that was 3-23 before his arrival in 1997.

"(Slonaker) built our program from the ground up,'' Pope said. "Every year in the first four years we had progress, and then we did have a bump in the road last year when we lost our two best players because of injuries.''

Added Pope: "If you look at Mark's overall record, you might say 'Why look at him?' but if you look closer you will see the steady progress he has made here.''

Pope also said Slonaker will provide the integrity that Georgia is seeking after the end of Jim Harrick's four years as head coach ended with charges of academic fraud, unethical conduct and other improper benefits to players in the program.

Pope said Slonaker would provide the basketball equivalent of the leadership that has helped make Mark Richt a success in his first two years as Georgia's football coach.

"The guy will never embarrass you,'' said Pope of Slonaker.

"I challenge you to find any individual who has one bad thing to say about Mark Slonaker. I've never met a man who didn't like Mark.''

Slonaker won the Jim Phelan Coach of the Year award, named last month by collegeinsider.com. Other finalists were Kentucky's Tubby Smith, Arizona's Lute Olson, Wake Forest's Skip Prosser and Wisconsin's Bo Ryan.

Slonaker also was named coach of the year in Georgia by the Atlanta Tipoff Club and the Atlantic Sun Conference coach of the year.

  Slonaker and Felton apparently will interview with Dooley and senior associate athletic director Damon Evans in New Orleans this week. Slonaker said he will leave for New Orleans today. Evans is due to arrive Friday and Dooley plans to follow Saturday or Sunday.

Saying "It's hard enough being a good coach at one place,'' Felton declined to call himself a candidate for the Georgia job, but he said he remains open to entertaining interest from Dooley.

Felton has taken Western Kentucky to three straight NCAA tournaments. Floyd also is a leading candidate for the vacancy at  Clemson.

Meanwhile, it appears Tennessee-Chattanooga coach Jeff Lebo will not be a good fit for Georgia. Lebo apparently would not leave Chattanooga if he could not bring his father, assistant coach Dave Lebo, with him to Athens. University of Georgia president Michael Adams said last week there will be no more exemptions made for Georgia's nepotism policy.

Adams and Dooley allowed Harrick to hire his son, Jim Harrick Jr., and the younger Harrick was at the center of the charges of academic fraud as well as allegations of  improper financial benefits.

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