published Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

Mocs still first, seek to regroup

The internal perspective is that the Mocs have been punched in the mouth, kicked in the gut and left alone in a back alley.

Reality is that the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball team is in first place in the Southern Conference North Division with three games left to play.

"It doesn't feel like we're in first place," coach John Shulman said. "It feels like we just lost three games in a row on the road. You have to remind yourself what's real and what's not.

"What's real is that we're in first place."

The Mocs (14-13, 10-5) have been in first place since Dec. 2, when they beat Appalachian State 81-69 in the first game of their SoCon schedule.

The second-place squad has varied between ASU and Western Carolina. UTC's largest lead was 3 1/2 games, and that was the margin as Shulman and his team embarked on what he considers the most difficult road trip of his coaching career, with time as an assistant included.

Four players coming down with the flu resulted in two major shifts in the Mocs' schedule, eliminated practice and forced them to play on back-to-back nights with three hours of travel in between.

"Those [sick] guys looked like zombies," senior Troy Cage said. "They were out of it."

UTC lost 69-68 on Friday at WCU on a last-second free throw after a questionable call, then lost 78-68 at App State on Saturday.

"It wasn't a real good weekend," Shulman said before a typical team meeting Monday. "I'm not real pleased with a lot of different things. There's nothing we can do about it now.

"We're still in first, but with no cushion."

WCU is 9-5 and the Mountaineers are 8-7 in the SoCon. Both have a shot at earning first-round byes in the SoCon tournament should UTC stumble next week at home against Furman and Wofford — both of which are in the race for the South Division title — and then at Samford to finish the regular season. The Mocs visit Georgia Tech in a nonconference game Wednesday night.

One win should earn UTC a first-round bye in the SoCon tournament, although outcomes of other games could change that. Two wins guarantee that bye. Three wins earn the Mocs at least share of the North title.

"We have to win out. We have three more conference games," Cage said. "We have two at home against real good teams. We haven't lost a home conference game."

Said guard Omar Wattad: "We have to get ourselves better and get our stuff right again. It's not wrong. It just has to get better."

The Georgia Tech game will have no impact on UTC's standing in the SoCon or the tournament. Yet it's a key game in Shulman's eyes as the Mocs come off consecutive losses.

"We have to regain some confidence and momentum right now," Shulman said. "It's important how we respond to adverse conditions.

"Next week is very important. More than anything, we need momentum."

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about David Uchiyama...

David Uchiyama is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who began his tenure here in May 2001. His primary beats are UTC athletics — specifically men’s basketball and athletic department administration — and golf, which includes coverage from the PGA Tour to youth events. He also covers other high school sports, outdoor adventures, and contributes to other sections of the newspaper when necessary. David grew up in Salinas, Calif., and began working ...

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