For the third straight season, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga head basketball coach John Shulman will go into the team's brief Christmas break with a lot on his mind.
But, unlike the past two seasons when academic ineligibility and suspension caused problems, the change this year is that those thoughts are more worrisome as opposed to frustrating.
Casey Jones will have an MRI on Wednesday -- the day the team returns from the holidays -- to determine the status of his knee after an injury 11 seconds into the second half of the Mocs' 108-78 victory over Reinhardt. The 6-foot-5 freshman forward had started all 11 games and was third on the team in rebounding and assists, and second in blocks.
"We're a very close team. The guys really like and care for each other," Shulman said. "To see one go down takes a little steam out of a bunch of young guys. I'm just going to have to enjoy Christmas and try to enjoy life for a moment.
"I'm concerned about Casey -- I'm concerned about the news we're going to get. He's going to have to rehab and home and ice, but right now I don't feel gooda bout that. It would sting a little, but we're going to have to hope for a Christmas miracle."
If the injury is serious, one player that more will be asked of is walk-on freshman Alex Bran. Starting point guard Ronrico White and backup guard Eric Robertson will be moved to small forward, while freshmen Farad Cobb and Bran would assume point guard duties.
In his last two games, the freshman from St. George's Independent School in Memphis has averaged 10 points, while Cobb's 14-point outing against Reinhardt was his best performance since scoring 23 at Kansas last month.
Jones would join senior Dontay Hampton, junior Drew Baker and sophomore Lance Stokes on the bench, all out with various injuries. But the hope is that Jones will be healthy and can return sooner rather than later.
The team has literally limped to a 3-8 start, with Drazen Zlovaric being the only senior on the team. Among the losses were promising defeats at No. 7 Kansas and LSU in which the team played valiantly, and against underrated teams like Louisiana Tech (9-3), Eastern Kentucky (10-2) and Mercer, the last of whom went on the road and defeated Florida State.
"We've just had to learn by doing; learn by fire," Shulman said. "Nobody's going to feel sorry for us."
Of course, experience has also been an issue. Of the 11 players that played in the Reinhardt victory, nine are either freshmen or sophomores. Five of those nine are in their first season of college basketball, which is why sophomore Martynas Bareika didn't take the Eagles for granted.
"It doesn't matter who we play. We have to get better," he said. "Our goal is to get better each day we're in practice, as well as each game."
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