published Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

UTC comfort zone

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    Staff Photo by Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press Mocs fans show enthusiasm as Coach John Shulman's team stretches the lead to 20 points over Furman on a 'blackout' Monday night at McKenzie Arena.

No active college basketball coach in America may hate zone defense more than the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's John Shulman. Zones are for wimps and whiners and guys who tie pale pink sweaters around their necks while sipping triple caramel lattes through straws.

Real men play man-to-man and only man-to-man after chewing on light bulbs during timeouts.

Or as Shulman noted following Monday night's 75-59 victory over Furman, "A zone's OK, I guess, if you're long, rangy and athletic. We aren't long, rangy and athletic."

Yet three years ago, when Shulman was attempting to encourage point guard Keegan Bell to bring his considerable talent to the Mocs after he decided to leave Vanderbilt, the coach intently listened to Bell's fascination with the matchup zone.

"I kept saying, 'Let's just try a little zone," Bell said after scoring 14 points and handing out four assists in 38 minutes Monday. "He said he'd consider it. Once I got here I decided he'd probably lied to me."

Said Shulman, his face somewhat straight, "That's recruiting."

Perhaps, but Monday night the Mocs played zone. Lots of zone by Shulman standards. Though they started in a man, they switched to a 3-2 early and often. On occasion it looked like a 2-3. Sometimes it even appeared to be a matchup.

But whatever it was or was supposed to be, it worked. Against a Furman team that had destroyed the Mocs 85-59 a month ago in Greenville, S.C., UTC led by 12 at intermission and by 23 less than 10 minutes into the second half.

Thus did a four-game losing streak become the most pleasantly surprising victory of the season, the Mocs now 15-14 for the season as they head into Wednesday night's regular-season home finale against defending Southern Conference tourney champ Wofford.

"We were on a crash course for destruction," Shulman said. "We had to make some changes. Now we're getting better. For a long time, we weren't getting better."

The obvious reason for the Mocs looking better was that they were back inside McKenzie Arena, where they've won six straight games and eight of their last nine.

On the face of it, McKenzie shouldn't be vastly different from any other gym. The court is still 94 feet long, the basket still 10 feet off the floor. But the Mocs have lost five straight SoCon games away from McKenzie by an average of 16.7 points while winning their last six home league games by an average of seven points.

"We're just more comfortable here," Bell said. "That's usually the mark of a young team, and we're too old for that. But our confidence level just seems so much higher in this building."

The rest of the SoCon will no doubt wince upon hearing Bell's words. After all, the league tourney begins on McKenzie's floor next week and Shulman already has won the conference tourney twice previously when playing here.

"It's not a home court, it's a neutral court," the coach said late Monday. "They cover up our 'C' with the Southern Conference logo."

What they can't cover up is the Mocs fan base, which arrived in numbers not seen all season (5,107) to cheer their heroes during the school's "Black-Out" promotion, which included the team wearing black uniforms.

"And we need all those people back against Wofford," Shulman said.

But what he apparently most needed back was junior Chris Early, who hasn't been away so much literally as figuratively, to the degree that Shulman texted him early Monday to ask the player if he could "find Chris Early. We need him back. We need his defense back."

Early texted Shulman that he would try to get a lot of rebounds against Furman.

Shulman texted Early back that he needed defense, not rebounds.

Doing a little bit of everything, Early finished with a game-high 23 points, eight rebounds and two steals.

Asked if it was his best effort ever, he said, "The best in a long time."

How all this will play out Wednesday and next week remains a big unknown. On the face of it, both Wofford and the College of Charleston appear to be a cut above the rest of the SoCon. UTC may have turned in its best offensive show of the season five weeks ago to beat Charleston by three. Now Wofford, which beat UTC by 32 on Jan. 20, arrives.

"All of us are big fans of the zone," Bell said with a smile.

Sounds a little like a recruiting pitch, doesn't it?

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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