LEXINGTON, Ky. — John’s Shulman’s coaching commands inside the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga huddle were familiar Saturday night.
“Build a wall.”
But would his Mocs listen to him with No. 3 Kentucky having already jumped out to an 18-2 lead before its usual 23,000 strong sea of blue inside Rupp Arena?
Had Twitter-gate stolen away their last bit of fight and focus? Could this UTC team — already 3-7 on the season — get its act together in time to avoid a 50- or 60-point loss, as at least one RPI website had predicted?
“We’re now in a four-minute game,” Shulman said less than four minutes in, his charcoal gray suit coat already discarded.
“Let’s play a four-minute game.”
Television timeouts make every game a series of four-minute contests, even if anyone catching this one on cable network CSS that wasn’t a member of UK’s Big Blue Nation probably switched to other fare four minutes into this one.
Still, coaches can’t just warm up the bus for home less than four minutes along. So Shulman did the only thing he could. He focused on the next four minutes.
“We came out a bit lethargic,” senior point guard Keegan Bell would say afterward. We knew they would try to rough us up in the beginning and we did not respond very well. But once we made it past the four-minute mark I feel that we came back and did some solid things.”
From that 18-2 hole the Mocs climbed within 20-9. They never drew closer, falling behind by as many as 34 at one point before UK’s John Calipari emptied his bench.
But that didn’t mean Shulman and his team didn’t have their moments. The rapidly improving Georgia transfer Drazen Zlovaric finished with 15 points and nine rebounds against, in his words, “Five guys that can be (NBA) first-round draft picks or even lottery picks.”
Indeed, when Zlovaric missed a block out of UK freshman Anthony Davis at one point, Shulman said, “You know that’s the No. 1 overall pick in next year’s NBA draft, don’t you?”
But Shulman handled all that talent better than one might think. Calling for his beloved “Fire” defense at one point, he told his team, “they’re not even looking where they throw it (out of the double team). You can pick it off.”
As if on cue, the Mocs stole two straight passes. During another timeout he called for an isolation play for Ole Miss transfer Z Mason. Within four seconds, Mason had a layup.
There has been plenty of criticism and frustration from UTC fans of late regarding Shulman and some of it is surely justified. But on those moments a coach can have a profound impact on the game — such as directly following a timeout — Shulman hardly looked like a guy who deserved suspended senior forward Chris Early’s ill-advised Tweet that, “There are certain people who shouldn’t be able to coach college basketball.”
Instead, said UK point guard Marquis Teague, who missed eight of 13 shots facing the Mocs’ Fire, “They played hard. They knocked a lot of tough shots. They never quit, not for one second.”
Playing hard is not always the same as playing smart. But UTC is done with the teams it shouldn’t be expected to beat — Indiana, Butler and Kentucky. This doesn’t excuse the losses to Gardner Webb and Kennesaw State. But it does give hope that those tough moments may finally be behind them.
The necessary suspension of Early may also pay long-term dividends.
“We took a right hook before we got off the bus,” said Shulman of the Early mess. “And I’m tired of right hooks. We deserve better.”
Thing is, they have better. They have far more good kids than bad, as witness senior Ricky Taylor, who graduated on campus Saturday morning, hitching a ride from grad assistant Jonathan Adams to arrive in Lexington three and a half hours before the game.
“No. 1 day of my whole life,” said Taylor after scoring 11 points, handing out five assists and grabbing four rebounds. “Dec. 17 is a day I’ll never forget.”
If the Mocs, their coach included, embrace the good from this weekend rather than the bad, they may soon make their fans forget the frustration of this 3-8 start. If not, Early probably won’t be the last person to tweet about his coach.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...