published Sunday, November 11th, 2012

New atmosphere surrounds Chattanooga Mocs

UTC's Ricky Taylor shoots in the game against Western Carolina.
UTC's Ricky Taylor shoots in the game against Western Carolina.
Photo by Angela Lewis /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Ricky Taylor participated in every University of Tennessee at Chattanooga basketball game last season.

He has returned to practice a few times this preseason wanting to watch more than wanting to play.

"I wanted to see if players matured or they're making the same mistakes, and if the freshmen are ready enough to accept the challenge of being a Division I player," said Taylor, a senior guard on last year's disappointing squad. "It seemed like everybody was passionate about it. This team has their head on right, and they're ready to accept coaching."

Perhaps it's Taylor's love for coach John Shulman, or perhaps it's truth: There is a new aura, a fresh air surrounding the program, a different approach with a group of fledgling players wearing blue and gold this season.

"It definitely feels like a new regime," said Sam Watson, who has played more games in a UTC jersey than any other current player. "It's a lot different having five new guys, whereas it felt like we had the same team for the last two or three years."

Without making a coaching change, UTC has made a change in culture. It may not result in more wins. It may not extend the two remaining seasons on Shulman's contract.

It is different than the suffocating atmosphere from last season in which UTC failed to win one game away from McKenzie Arena for the first time in the school's Division I existence.

"We needed newness," said Shulman, who has five freshmen on the roster. "We didn't do the little things, and we didn't play the game how it's supposed to be played to have success. We didn't deserve success."

The previous bunch of Mocs -- beginning the season with five seniors as the top six players -- floundered to an 11-21 overall mark and a 5-11 mark in the Southern Conference despite being selected to win the North Division and compete for an NCAA tournament berth.

They crumbled under the weight of expectations to win. They lost due to an inability to score inside and the tendency to play one-on-one in the waning moments of games. They desired team success but regularly played with individual accomplishments in mind. They lost eight games by three points or less, including two in overtime.

"People weren't on the same page," said senior point guard Dontay Hampton, who is sidelined with a knee injury until at least Christmas. "We weren't as bad a people thought. That's what made it more frustrating."

The graduated senior class -- including Chris Early, who was suspended on Dec. 16 when disparaging remarks on Twitter about coach Shulman surfaced -- accounted for 53 percent of the scoring last season.

"In my opinion, we needed [Early]," Taylor said. "He had a lot of experience. I know we had other guys and Z [Mason] did a wonderful job, but Chris's experience would have helped a lot.

"Chris Early was the key guy that we needed, to me."

The senior class also accounted for 52 percent of the shots made, 57.3 percent of the shots taken and more than 78 percent of the 3-pointers taken and made.

The Mocs were so reliant on the 3-point line that 39 percent of their shots were taken from behind the arc. They made 33.2 percent of them, which ranked next-to-last in the Southern Conference.

"Even though we had experienced guards, we still needed experience from every position," Taylor said. "Even though we shot a bulk of the shots, we still can't win the games by ourselves."

Those shooters, including Taylor, who attempted 224 3s last season have moved on.

Taylor, Early and Jahmal Burroughs have sought Shulman's advice for getting jobs in professional basketball. Keegan Bell is playing professionally in Iceland, and Shulman put in a good word for Omar Wattad to play in Israel.

Noticeable differences on the court in this preseason include a few tweaks to UTC's motion offense, less reliance on set plays and ball-screen motion in favor of off-the-ball screening and a concentrated effort to work from the inside out. Other differences include the likelihood of having more athletic players in the backcourt. All of the four new scholarship guards are quicker and faster than their predecessors.

"We have a lot of new guys. It brings a lot of excitement a lot of fun," Mason said of the team which has been picked to finish fifth or sixth in the SoCon North Division by SoCon coaches, SoCon media and national magazines.

"We definitely struggled in terms of chemistry," Mason said. "We couldn't play together -- we couldn't get all of our attributes together.

"One of the main focuses this year is to have chemistry on and off the court."

That's not the only thing that's different as UTC heads into its season opener Monday night against Tennessee Temple.

"They don't blame it on others -- that's a lot different," Shulman said. "That's night and day."

The first night of the new season is Monday.

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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