AUBURN, Ala. – Most student-athletes at major universities will settle in around 12 credit hours during their season, meant to balance the hectic schedules expected of players balancing school and sports.
So naturally, Auburn junior guard Chris Denson had to be daunted by having to pass 19 credits worth of tests and final exams by the first week of December, which would be challenging for even the normal student to complete without the daily grind of practice, workouts and film study.
But Denson fully understood: the Shaw product made his bed, so he had to lie in it.
“My priorities were messed up,” Denson said. “I put a lot of things before school work, and I had to pass 19 hours. That was rough. I had to put a lot of things down that really weren’t important in my life.”
And his refocused work ethic paid off, meeting the academic requirements to regain his game eligibility. Not a moment too soon, either: after a 2-5 start with Denson limited to just practices, Auburn handled Grambling State and Furman last week lifted by 30 points from Denson, immediately reinstated to the starting lineup.
On his very first possession of the season, Denson attacked to the rim and drew a Grambling foul. His attack-mode hasn’t subsided, making 12 of 16 field-goal attempts.
“He’s an obvious help. Instant offense,” senior forward Noel Johnson said. “As you can see, a ton of energy and a crowd favorite, too. So we definitely needed him back.”
The return wasn’t easy. Denson hacked through a mixture of written exams and standardized tests to restore his academic standing established by Auburn University – the minimum GPA varies by how many credit hours each student has passed.
His toughest course was an ethics class in the philosophy department.
“The questions try to trip you up,” Denson said. “But I passed it with a B, so we’re good.”
Denson turned to his family, head coach Tony Barbee, and team chaplain Reverend Randy Roberts as resources. He gave up many of the ideal college student’s simple pleasures – going out at night, playing video games, chatting on the phone – in favor of study hall.
“It took maturity. Like Coach Barbee said, he wants this to be a one-time thing,” Denson said. “It’s all about life choices.”
He faced a similar type of pressure to, say, protecting a 2-point lead in crunch time against Kentucky. But Denson felt it over and over with each test, knowing his team was counting on him hitting the books and knocking down multiple-choice answers so he could go back to hitting layups and knocking down 15-footers.
Now in the midst of Christmas break, Denson is all in on basketball, fostering the fast break and showcasing a newfound attentiveness on the defensive end of the floor.
“I think what’s different from his freshman and sophomore years,” said fellow junior Allen Payne, “is he’s a little bit more defensive-minded this year. He knows he can score the ball, but he definitely knows he has the ability to guard anybody on the floor on the perimeter. So now he’s taking more pride in playing and game-planning – not to say he wasn’t his freshman year, but it’s like a different level he’s playing at, and you can see it out on the floor.”
There was no way to sugarcoat it: sitting out hurt Denson emotionally, but he refused to sulk.
“With guys who are sitting out – transfers or guys like Chris when the games were taken away from him by his own doing – we want to make sure they’re in a mindset that practices are their games,” Barbee said. “Chris took that to heart. He came after every one of those first-semester practices and attacked those practices like they were his games.
“So now, when the lights come on for him, it’s gametime, he’s ready to go.”
Along the way, Denson feels he grew up.
“I was never an all A-student, but I’m trying to get better on trying to get by,” Denson said. “This was an eye opener for me. I’ll never get in this predicament again.”
Denson’s promise to make amends – along with his tenacious desire guarding Frankie Sullivan, Josh Wallace and Jordan Price in practice during his suspension – have rubbed off on teammates.
“It’s tough to fight back from the situation he was in,” Payne said. “It’s kind of an inspiration to us when we see he cares so much that he made a mistake, he learned from it, he did what he had to do, and he came back and now he’s playing really well for us.
“Right now, he’s in a groove, and we’re going to ride him until the wheels fall off.”