Wes Moore figured he’d found an inspired way to strengthen his University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Lady Mocs for their Southern Conference tournament opener today against Wofford.
Spying UTC men’s point guard Keegan Bell — he of the flowing hair and goatee — the women’s coach said earlier this week, “You know, if you’d shave that beard, I might be able to get you on the floor with the Lady Mocs.”
Countered Bell after a brief chuckle: “If I can get the hair just a little bit longer, put it in a ponytail and shave it up, I think I could pass. To have a green light like that, I think [Whitney] Hood and I could do some dangerous stuff out there.”
Dangerous stuff from both the UTC men and women is what the Chattanooga fan base hopes to see all weekend inside McKenzie Arena, beginning with the Lady Mocs and continuing at 7 tonight with the men against Furman.
If history holds, the men will lock up their third NCAA tournament bid in John Shulman’s seven years at the helm, since his previous two teams that played the SoCon tourney inside McKenzie both cut down the nets.
Conversely, the women again will be disappointed, since their two prior times to play host ended in defeat.
Then again, those Lady Mocs squads were heavy favorites. This year’s team will be a lovable underdog, forced to overachieve if it is to play on.
“It all comes down to defense and rebounding,” Moore said. “You’ll have at least one game when you’re not hitting, so you better guard and rebound.”
But Moore saw at least one reason to like the third-seeded Lady Mocs’ chances that they’ve never previously had a chance to experience.
“I think our kids felt a little bit of pressure before,” he said. “We’re under the radar a little bit this year.”
The men Mocs are anywhere but under the radar. Their lopsided loss to Wofford last week was their first league defeat at home all season. Add their sterling history in this event at Bigger Mac and that they’re the healthiest they’ve been all year and it’s easy to see why Shulman boldly said Tuesday, “Our team is here to win it. That’s our goal. That dream is 120 minutes away.”
That’s everybody’s dream this time of year, though some schools in every conference will need 160 minutes (four games) rather than three to advance.
And there is no guarantee that either UTC squad will last past today. The SoCon may be ranked only the 19th best men’s conference in the country this morning, but that puts it seven spots ahead of the Ohio Valley, eight ahead of the Big West and 13 places ahead of the worst league (Southwestern Athletic) out there with an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Point is, this is a pretty tough conference and it will take everything the Lady Mocs and Mocs have to win this event and advance.
And in the case of the UTC men, there is much reason to doubt them capable of such a run. After all, to win it all they would have to defeat a dangerous Paladins squad tonight, probably the College of Charleston — the league’s best team when it plays its best — in a Sunday semifinal and defending tourney champ Wofford in Monday’s title game, assuming the Terriers survive their half of the bracket.
Given that Wofford has beaten the Mocs twice by an average of 35.5 points this season, it should give one great cause to doubt a third time would be a charm for the home team.
But something former UTC coach Mack McCarthy texted Shulman a few days ago shouldn’t be ignored. Wrote Mack: “You’ve been amazingly resilient.”
And they have for the most part. With the exception of their home loss to Wofford, they’ve also shown an amazing ability to play far better within McKenzie than outside it.
So even without Bell to guide them, look for the Lady Mocs to break with their tourney tradition and win their first SoCon tourney crowd inside Bigger Mac. Then look for the men to join them in earning an NCAA bid later Monday night by the hair on Bell’s chinny-chin-chin.
After all, if the SoCon is determined to never again bring its tourney come to McKenzie, the Mocs might as well give the league an excellent reason why.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com or 423-757-6273.
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 ...