published Friday, March 2nd, 2012

UTC Mocs try tonight to extend season

Keegan Bell spins a basketball n his finger during UTC Basketball practice at McKenzie Arena.
Staff File Photo
Keegan Bell spins a basketball n his finger during UTC Basketball practice at McKenzie Arena. Staff File Photo

The stats are stacked against the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocs.

No Southern Conference basketball team has won four league tournament games in one season to advance to the NCAA tournament.

Only one NCAA Division I team with 20 regular-season losses has advanced to the Big Dance. Coppin State accomplished that feat in 2008.

The Mocs face the challenge of adding to college basketball history tonight when they begin the SoCon tournament against Georgia Southern at 8:30 in Asheville, N.C.

"I'm not a big history guy, and I'm not huge on history because I don't worry about the past," point guard Keegan Bell said. "I live in the moment."

The sixth seed from the SoCon's North Division, UTC is among the underdogs to win a conference tournament after a turbulent season that included the dismissal of a senior, 20 losses for the first time in the school's history and zero road wins since becoming a Division I team in 1977.

"Everything has been dropped from the past and now we can go play ball," coach John Shulman said. "If [UConn] can win five in the Big East tournament [as happened last year], I think you can win four in the Southern."

Season records do not matter come tournament time. A team either earns a bye or not, and then the tournament begins with all schools owning 0-0 records.

Either UTC (11-20, 5-13) or Georgia Southern (14-14, 12-6) will take the first step this evening in the U.S. Cellular Center.

"If you did a power ranking of the SoCon, you'd have us somewhere in that top four," Georgia Southern coach Charlton Young said. "We're preparing like we're playing Duke."

Coppin State was the seventh seed in the 2008 MEAC tournament, Oakland entered its 2005 Mid-Continent Conference tournament with a losing record, and the Fairfield team of 1997 owned the eighth seed in the MAAC tournament. All three wound up in the NCAA tournament.

"It doesn't matter how well you're playing in the game, the only thing that matters is getting through that one game and winning," Coppin State coach Ron "Fang" Mitchell said. "We didn't always play great in that tournament, but we won."

Coppin State won its four tournament games by a total of six points.

"We started the seniors and put the season in their hands," Mitchell said. "When we did that [at midseason], they felt an obligation and they gave me everything they had. They didn't want to go out as losers. They won a lot of close games."

Mitchell and Oakland coach Greg Kampe are preparing their current teams for their conference tournaments beginning next week.

"On Tuesday, we stood at half-court and I had everybody look up at the 2005 banner and asked, 'Anybody know how many wins that team had?'" Kampe said. "One kid guessed 25 wins. Another guessed 28.

"Nope. we were 9-18 heading into that tournament. Nobody ever remembers that. The 2005 team was one of the greatest every because they saw that banner."

The Grizzlies won after a roller-coaster season in which Kampe booted one player off the team for fighting with another. And the hero of the championship game, Pierre Dukes, began the season as a practice player and finished the conference tournament by hitting a 3-pointer with 1.3 second left.

"The kid who gave up his scholarship was standing all alone in the corner and hits the shot," Kampe said. "You can't make that up. That's 'Hoosiers.'"

Fairfield's Stags finished the 1996-97 season about where preseason expectations had them. But a rash of injuries had dropped them to the the eighth seed. Their three-game run included victories over the Nos. 1, 2 and 4 seeds.

"They were the previous season champions and the preseason pick," said Jack Jones, associate athletic director for communications. "I think they won two conference games all year. Then they put it all together."

These Mocs need a similar connection of coming together at the last minute. They lost six SoCon games by three points or less.

"If they were talented enough to be picked first, then they're talented enough to win it," Kampe said. "Nothing matters up until now."

about David Uchiyama...

David Uchiyama is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who began his tenure here in May 2001. His primary beats are UTC athletics — specifically men’s basketball and athletic department administration — and golf, which includes coverage from the PGA Tour to youth events. He also covers other high school sports, outdoor adventures, and contributes to other sections of the newspaper when necessary. David grew up in Salinas, Calif., and began working ...

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