published Monday, November 14th, 2011

Basketball Mocs set goals high

Keegan Bell spins a basketball on his finger during a recent UTC practice at McKenzie Arena.
Keegan Bell spins a basketball on his finger during a recent UTC practice at McKenzie Arena.
Photo by Alex Washburn /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

As the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga basketball Mocs begin their eighth season under coach John Shulman this evening at Indiana, everyone agrees on the ultimate goal.

"Last year we wanted to win the [Southern Conference] North, and we did that," Shulman said. "This year we've got our sights set higher."

Added senior point guard Keegan Bell, referring to the automatic NCAA tournament bid that comes with winning the SoCon tourney: "We want to win the championship, then go as far as we can [in March Madness]."

Even UTC athletic director Rick Hart admitted Friday afternoon, "I think we all have high expectations, but I also think there are high expectations for this program every year."

That tends to happen for a program with five contributing seniors and that has gone to the NCAA tournament 10 times since 1981 despite residing in a one-bid league like the Southern.

Shulman has certainly contributed to that tradition. Despite an overall record of 121-106 and a 66-58 mark within the league, the fifth UTC coach of its Division I era (1978 forward) reached his sport's grandest stage in both 2005 and 2009, one of only three SoCon coaches to get to the NCAA tourney during his seven seasons managing the Mocs.

Yet both Shulman and Hart have heard the grumbling that the Mocs winning outright or tying for three of the last four SoCon North crowns isn't enough. That the NCAA tourney berths haven't been enough. That schedules sprinkled with the likes of Indiana, Butler, Memphis, Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia Tech haven't been enough, even when the Volunteers and Yellow Jackets have both ventured into McKenzie Arena and Shulman has beaten UT on the road.

"There's some frustration that we're not winning more games during the regular season," said Hart, referring to Shulman having recorded only one 20-win season thus far, that coming in his first year.

"At the same time, others are pleased with what we've done in the postseason under John. They also recognize the program is adapting to a new philosophy to recruit more high school seniors [as opposed to junior college players], and they're happy about that. And at last check, our [season-ticket] renewals were pretty strong."

And that's with a nonconference home schedule that includes such little-knowns as Warren Wilson, Spalding and Hiwassee.

If nothing else, if the Mocs do no better than equal last year's 12-6 conference mark, Shulman should at least record the second 20-win season of his UTC tenure.

"We're certainly positioned for success this year," Hart said. "After that we probably need to all have a little patience, since John is going to have a pretty young team the next couple of years, especially with us shifting our focus to signing high school players."

As for the schedule itself, Hart admitted, "Certainly, the home schedule is not the quality we expect. Hopefully, we'll improve that in the years to come."

Yet even the home nonconference schedule should come with an asterisk, since it has become harder and harder to convince quality mid-majors to visit without financial incentives, which UTC can't afford.

"The reality is that not a lot of people want to come in here and play because we're pretty good here," said 1990s UTC letterman and local businessman Shane Neal. "It's been that way since long before I was here."

Indeed, current UTC freshman Ronrico White -- whose father Tony starred at Tennessee in the mid-1980s -- noted, "My dad said nobody would come down here because it was so crazy."

But a down economy, a consistently weak nonconference schedule, a national trend toward lower basketball attendance and fewer 20-win seasons have all conspired to give the appearance of a UTC program in decline.

"Has it gone perfect?" Shulman reflected last week. "No. And I understand the tradition of Chattanooga. I'm no dummy. But I've felt like the fan base has been restless since I took over that first day in 2004. That's part of being the youngest of seven children and being a parent pleaser.

"If 5,000 fans are happy and four are upset, I'm worried about those four. That's just my nature. But I also like where this program is right now and where I think it's headed in the future."

Neal, whose father was a basketball coach and whose brother Craig is an assistant at New Mexico, believes fans should not look only at the won-lost record.

"I don't think 20 wins is necessary," he said. "I think the fans want to see is whether or not their team put up a fight, were they competitive, are they getting better. I think that's what the fans most want to see. They want to see competitive, well-played games."

Besides, said Hart, "What if you have injuries like the football team's had? Sometimes victories are out of your control. Right now, I just know that we've got a great mix of veteran guys and young guys and I'm excited to see how it all comes together."

Starting tonight.

about Mark Wiedmer...

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 ...

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