Links: Talking With A Hoops Dawg

by March 25, 2010

by Lang Whitaker

Longtime frequenters of The Links understand that historically, this is not a space for those who enjoy college basketball. Sure, I get into it a little during March Madness — I’m not a total hater — but on the whole, during the regular season I am not much of a college hoops fan. For the most part, the level of basketball played isn’t close when compared to the NBA. But I enjoy watching the really good players play. And the spirit of the games, the rivalries, that stuff I can definitely appreciate.

I grew up just a few miles from Georgia Tech, and my Dad and I went to plenty of games during the Bobby Cremins era. Tech plays in a small gym — the capacity now is just over 9,000, but it was even smaller when I was a kid — and when it’s packed and rocking, it’s a pretty incredible environment to be in for a game. (I was actually at this game, which was pretty memorable.)

When I went off to college at the University of Georgia, there wasn’t much of a basketball culture. Sure, Dominique had played there many years earlier, and UGA had actually been to the Final Four in 1983, when NC State ended up winning it all. But UGA is in the SEC, and the SEC has always been — and probably always will be — a football conference. Still, when I was at UGA, Tubby Smith was coaching the basketball team, and students and fans were really into the team. But then Tubby left for Kentucky, the only SEC school where basketball is truly king, and his successors, including Ron Jirsa, Jim Harrick and Dennis Felton, couldn’t build any lasting hoops momentum in Athens.

Last summer the Dawgs hired Mark Fox as their new coach. He’d been at Nevada previously, and I’d been so wrapped up in NBA hoops that I knew absolutely nothing about him. After one year as coach, I still don’t know much about him, other than he uses the triangle offense and that UGA had a much better year than anyone expected. UGA fans are starting to get excited about basketball again, and as a UGA fan and a basketball fan, Coach Fox has my interest piqued.

The only other thing I know about Coach Fox is that he is apparently good at trick shots. I learned this a few weeks ago when I saw Coach Fox make this trick shot on ESPN’s Top 10 plays.

The ESPN guys mentioned this shot had been posted on the blog of a UGA walk-on named Connor Nolte. I dutifully looked up the blog, read through it, found it interesting, then went on with my life watching NBA games.

Then during a Hawks game a few weeks ago I was tweeting thoughts and sorting through @replies on Twitter and noticed one from Connor Nolte. Yeah, the same Connor Nolte.

So Connor and I got in touch and have been emailing ever since. And now The Links has a college basketball expert. And not only a college hoops expert, but one who actually, you know, plays major college basketball. Ladies and gents, Connor Nolte:

LANG: OK, first things first: Any relation to Nick?

CONNOR: No relation to Nick Nolte. I did have a Spanish teacher in high school accidentally call me Nick once a week for the entire school year, though. If I was related, it would probably make being a walk-on a lot easier. I gave up a D1 scholarship worth $60,000 a year to play here at UGA. Best decision I’ve ever made in my life, but I definitely had to make a few changes with my spending habits.

I know you went to Milton High School just outside Atlanta. Are you a Hawks fan?

I’m actually not a Hawks fan at all. [Editor’s Note: Sigh.] I was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and have been a Bucks fan my whole life. I moved to the south when I was 8, but I never converted. And I remember the glory days of 2001 when the Bucks had guys like Ray Allen, Glenn Robinson, Sam Cassell and, of course, current UGA basketball Director of Operations Mark Pope. My dad, brother and I drove up to see them play in Charlotte in the Playoffs. 

I actually did go to the Hawks/Bucks game a few weeks ago in Atlanta to see the Hawks win in OT. My sister made the Georgia Tech intramural All-Star team and played on the Philips Arena court after the game.

You started off at Furman before transferring to UGA. How did that come about? Did you grow up a UGA fan?

Same as the Hawks question: I grew up a Wisconsin fan and still cheer for the Badgers…unless of course they play UGA in anything. 

When I was a Junior in high school I was getting recruiting mail from all kinds of schools. I made a list of places that had good academics, good basketball teams, were close to home and places I thought I could get immediate playing time. Furman was at the top of the list: Great academics — at the time they were probably one of the top 4 teams in the SoCon — just over 2 hours away, and they were graduating five guys, so I knew I’d have a chance to make an immediate impact. 

Furman was the first school to offer me, and since they were no. 1 on my list, I accepted the offer in July before my senior year of high school. Looking back on the senior year that I had, its safe to say I would have had a number of offers to choose from but at the time I thought Furman was my dream school.

I was playing 20 minutes a game but I was miserable there. The coach was a different person than the coach I had talked to when I was being recruited. I didn’t like the fact that the school was so small. With 2,500 it felt like I was in high school all over again.

I decided I wanted to give my dream of playing big time college basketball one last shot. I knew that three years down the road when I was sitting at my desk at work I would have seriously regretted not trying to transfer and make the most out of my college experience. 

I asked for my release before talking to any other schools and Coach Fox hadn’t even been hired here yet. Georgia Tech was interested in me walking on but since my senior year of high school I wanted to play at UGA. Once Coach Fox got hired and finally settled into the job here in Athens, I met with him. He offered me a spot on the team as a walk-on and I let him know the next day that I wanted it. 

It’s pretty amazing how it all worked out. I thank God every day.

Georgia Tech has more of a basketball history and culture than UGA, so it’s interesting to me you chose UGA instead of Tech. I love UGA and the SEC, but the ACC is a better basketball conference, isn’t it?

My decision to go to UGA instead of Georgia Tech was puzzling to some people. Its true that the ACC is a more prestigious basketball conference than the SEC, but after meeting with Coach Fox I knew that something special was in the making at UGA. GT had a huge recruiting class coming in and it didn’t look like there would be much of an opportunity to battle for playing time. I really liked Coach Fox and his staff and the direction the program was heading.

The situation at UGA kind of reminds me of high school. I went to Milton High School, a school with practically no basketball history. As a 3 year starter on varsity we went to 3 straight State tournaments and 2 sweet sixteens. My brother plays there now and has played in 2 state championships in 2 years. 

I really think that UGA basketball is headed in an exciting direction and I’m looking forward to doing my part (whatever that may be) over the next two years to help the program.

What exactly does it mean to be a redshirt? You practice but you don’t play?

The NCAA has a rule that requires all players that transfer between D1 school to redshirt. This means that I’m not allowed to dress out for games or travel with the team to away games. This year we had another transfer, Gerald Robinson Jr., and he and I went through the process together. In practice we were on the scout team, emulating our upcoming opponents. One thing redshirt guys do is game day workouts. Since we weren’t going to be playing in the games, after our team shootaround, we did a skills workout while the rest of the team was chowing down on pregame meal. 

Transfer redshirts aren’t allowed to travel with the team. This left me with some free time I wasn’t used to having. I spent some of that working on my blog and am planning a series for the offseason that gets into more details on the life of a redshirt.

What’s the most fun thing about playing college basketball?

There are so many things I love about playing college basketball that I don’t know where to start. One of my favorite things is that I get to be a good role model for kids in the area. We got to read to elementary school kids the other day and that was great. I’ve been asked to speak at a few middle school FCA meetings. I remember how much I looked up to high school and college athletes when I was that age and that’s why I love doing that sort of thing so much.

How did you start your blog? Why did you start your blog?

Despite what a lot of people thing, I did not copy Mark Titus of Ohio State. His blog, Club Trillion, is one of the best sites on the web. but I actually started blogging almost a year before him. I’ve always been into technology and spent a lot of time on the internet. My freshman year we played Kenny George and UNC-Asheville, and their point guard Bryan Smithson had a blog. I thought it was a good idea. I decided to start my own to give fans an inside look into the life of a college basketball player. It has evolved a great deal and this season it really got a lot of press from my Game Day Trick Shot series. I accidentally caught a graduate assistant making a trick shot on camera and it turned into a game day tradition that included Coach Richt from the football team:

, Coach Fox and even Charles Barkley…

I saw you named your blog a phrase on Do you read a lot of hoops sites? Do college athletes read a lot of hoops sites?

Basketbawful has some hilarious “word of the day” posts. Thanks to the fact that I finally have Internet on my phone (a blackberry, get out of here with that iPhone nonsense), I spend way too much time on twitter and random blogs. I follow college hoops more than the NBA but I definitely like I was an NBA hater for most of high school and while I don’t hate it anymore, I still enjoy Basketbawful pointing out the worst of the worst from the League.

Road trips always have a lot of down time. I know that’s when a lot of college basketball players check out different hoops sites, watch highlights online, etc.

I had enough problems at UGA just being a student, so how tough is it to be a student-athlete?

One thing that’s great about UGA is we have an amazing support system. We have a building devoted to student athlete academics and tutors are available for everything. I’ve always been a good student and have been able to handle athletics and academics pretty well for my college career. 

What’s the future hold for you after UGA?
Well, I’m a Marketing major here at UGA and I’d love to do some kind of sports marketing. I’ve also thought about getting into Coaching. I will hopefully be interning in the sports marketing field this summer and get a taste of what that’s like. Ideally I want to work in the marketing department of a professional sports franchise or with a sports magazine or television station.

The Sweet Sixteen tips off tonight. You guys played Kentucky twice this year, so whats your take on the teams that are left? And did you do a bracket? Are you allowed to?

We are allowed to fill out brackets, just not enter them into pools for prizes. I have West Virginia, Duke, Syracuse, and Ohio State in my Final Four. I will say that if I could do it over again I would put Kentucky into the Final Four. They are SO talented and are very hot right now. I think they will be hard to beat for the rest of the tournament. I’d never count out Duke though. I think Duke-Kentucky would be a great matchup in the Final Four.

Finally, can you send me some food from Zaxby’s?

I can’t send you Zaxby’s BUT I might consider sending you some Chicken from Raisin’ Canes. I don’t work for them and am not getting paid for this in any way but its a place here in Athens that is Zaxby’s only better. Better Chicken, better sweet tea, better fries, WAAAAYYYYY better toast. They do a promotion at basketball games. If we hit 5 or more threes then all combo’s are buy one get one free. There’s a chance we put them out of business before I graduate after 2 more seasons.