published Friday, December 23rd, 2011

Mocs ‘0-0,’ thinking positive

As much as families love one another, all know that a little time apart is supposed to make the heart grow fonder.

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men’s basketball family might be “dysfunctional,” coach John Shulman’s word, but he hopes the Christmas break will help the team come back more focused and prepared for the tough Southern Conference slate ahead.

“Even dysfunctional families love each other,” Shulman said.

The Mocs head into the break 4-8 and 0-2 in the SoCon, but only one of the wins is over an NCAA Division I foe (Savannah State). The others were against Division III school Spalding University, United States Collegiate Athletic Association Division II member Warren Wilson and, two days ago, Hiwassee College of the National Christian College Athletic Association.

UTC’s best performance might have come in a double-overtime road loss against conference favorite College of Charleston. The Mocs also had road losses against top-20 members Indiana and Kentucky and 2010 and ’11 national runner-up Butler, plus another overtime defeat against Gardner-Webb.

The team also is dealing with the indefinite suspension of senior forward Chris Early for negative comments made on Twitter and a concussion suffered by second-leading scorer Omar Wattad, so the time off is much needed.

“It’s been frustrating, but I would much rather mess up then rather than during the conference season,” senior point guard Keegan Bell said. “We’ve got the break, so we can get away for a few days, take a deep breath and come back ready to roll.

“We’re going to come back 0-0.”

If there is a team with the talent to bounce back in the SoCon, it’s the Mocs. Bell became the program’s all-time leading assist man during the loss to Kentucky, and he added eight — with no turnovers — in the blowout victory over Hiwassee. Wattad and senior Ricky Taylor can light it up from 3-point range, and there is plenty of frontcourt depth.

“A season is all about ups and downs, and recently we’ve been on the downside,” Taylor said. “We believe in turnaround, though, so we think we’ll be all right.”

And then there’s Early, who still will be suspended when the team returns Monday from break. The Mocs’ next game Thursday against Longwood College (4-7) in the Dr Pepper Classic.

“As of now, there is no update on Chris Early,” Shulman said. “I’ve received emails from Chris; I’ve received texts from Chris. He’s distraught and apologetic about what’s happened, and I still love him. We’ve been through a lot together and have a very unique relationship.

“The best decision by all parties is that there is no decision as of yet.”

As of now for the Mocs, the challenge is to come back post-Christmas ready for the long road upward and ahead.

“It’s time for Christmas,” Shulman said. “It’s been a very difficult first part of the season. I’m not sure who believes in us, but our goal is to be the best. We want to be the best team. Some crazy stuff has happened, but it’s our goal and we’re going to do it.”

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