By Jeremy Acree
E-mail to: Jeremy-Acree@utc.edu
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (UTC/The Loop) — Just before Chattanooga basketball coach John Shulman sat down for his postgame radio interview after a Senior Night win over Davidson, he spotted a few ex-players and his face lit up. They were some of the seniors from last year’s team that won the Southern Conference Tournament and went to the NCAA Tournament.
“You see this guy?” Shulman asked his wife as he laughed and pointed at Niccheaus Doaks, a forward who is now playing professionally overseas.
Shulman gave Doaks a big hug, rubbed the 6-foot-10 big man’s mini-afro and could barely contain his wide smile. Kevin Goffney – who has stayed at UTC to get his degree – also dropped by to say hello to Shulman, his wife and their kids. It was like a family reunion. The memories of cutting down the nets and earning an appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s late night show seemed to come flooding back for a moment.
How things have changed in such a short time.
Flip last year’s team upside down and it is an exact replica of the 2009-10 squad. Goffney and Doaks were two of six seniors on that team. This year, it was only Ty Patterson being honored before the Davidson game.
“It’s weird being the only senior,” Patterson said.
Guys like Zach Ferrell and Keyron Sheard were the glue that kept spirits high after a 4-12 start that included losing the first three conference games in 2008.
This season, Shulman has had to push and prod just to get Patterson to keep up.
“He has been up and down with our team,” Shulman said about Patterson. “I told him [before Senior Night] if he wanted to win that he would have to play with way more effort than he had been playing with.”
This year’s team has taken a much different path than last year’s. In that 4-12 start, the Mocs played at Tennessee, at Missouri, in Puerto Rico against Southern California and Memphis and started the Southern Conference at Davidson – which was, at the time, home to Stephen Curry.
This year the Mocs started with a blowout of Virginia Intermont and an emotional win over rival East Tennessee State. A tournament in South Padre Island and games against Georgia Tech and Missouri were added difficulty to the schedule, but the Mocs were very happy with their 8-6 record over the first 14 games.
“I am excited,” Shulman said after his team beat Eastern Kentucky in the final tune-up before full-fledged conference play began. “We are not a finished product. But we battled… so that is promising.”
Things haven’t been so smooth since that point. Going into the Davidson game, the Mocs had lost nine of their last 11.
It was at this point last year when the team was coming together and looking forward to making a run in the tournament.
The 2008-09 group won 11-of-14 heading into Senior Night. The starting lineup hardly ever changed, and every man knew his role.
Last year the emotion of six seniors’ final game in the McKenzie Arena was too much to overcome, and the Mocs lost to College of Charleston. Then they lost to Appalachian State and Western Carolina on the road to finish the season with three straight defeats. But they managed to clinch a first-round bye in the SoCon Tournament – no team has ever won without it – and took advantage of the support they received while playing the tournament in Chattanooga.
That may be the biggest obstacle for this year’s team.
The ticket to the Big Dance does not go through McKenzie Arena. This year the SoCon Tournament is in Charlotte, N.C., and the Mocs will not have the luxury of playing one less game.
That change of venue hasn’t dampened the Mocs’ self-belief, though. The brash confidence is another difference youth has brought in 2010.
“We expected everyone to doubt us and think that we’re out,” sophomore Keegan Bell said. “But we have a chance to do something special. We believe it. This year is not over at all.”