Zaccheus Mason is becoming an artist with his feet, his hands and his fingertips.
He's becoming an artist at blocking shots.
Swatting shots is a skill based on timing, positioning and spacing that the former football tight end never learned before this basketball season.
And it's having an impact for Mason and his University of Tennessee at Chattanooga teammates, who will play at Appalachian State for the last time as Southern Conference foes tonight at 7 in the Holmes Convocation Center in Boone, N.C.
"I'm just trying to protect the basket," Mason said. "I'm trying to be a presence and help our guards when they get beat off the dribble and trying to be a post presence."
Mason's favorite swat of the season came last Saturday when he rejected a layup attempt by Wofford guard Spencer Collins back toward the Terriers' bench with eight minutes to go.
Legendary volleyball player Karch Kiraly would have been proud.
"When you get a few blocks at the rim, they're conscious of 'Where are you?'" Mason said. "Getting blocks and stops are things that help you win games."
Blocking shots had not been part of Mason's skill set heading into this season. A senior who transferred to UTC after playing football at Ole Miss, he blocked eight shots his first season and blocked 29 in 32 games last season.
Mason, who at 6-foot-6 and 235 pounds isn't the best leaper on the team (that distinction goes to Casey Jones, he said) has 43 blocks in 16 games this season, which ranked him 33rd in the nation at 2.69 blocks per game heading into Wednesday's games.
"It is an art because you can't practice blocking shots," said Jones, who ranks eighth in the SoCon with 15 blocks this year. "You can say it's a skill, but you have to want to do it and it takes timing. Either you have it or you don't."
Mason clearly does. Samford players took notice when he swatted five shots of theirs: They began fading away and looking for contact instead of finishing at the rim in UTC's 90-81 win last Thursday.
"I haven't noticed anything like that," Mason said. "But from previous games, having blocks makes [opponents] conscious, and that helps us on defense. Whatever helps us on 'D' is a good thing."
UTC coach Will Wade is the one who helped put Mason in position to develop the new skill and let Mason craft it as an art.
In Wade's "Chaos" system, shot-blocking is a key element because it can intimidate opponents and erase mistakes made by other players in the open floor against a press or assist a teammate who had a dribble get beyond him.
"Definitely, the philosophy is different," Mason said. "I don't think Coach thought I was a shot-blocker coming into the season. He wants me to distract shots, and that's a way to be a better defense."
With Mason's shot-swatting and shot-making, he has led UTC on a six-game winning streak; he has averaged 19 points in those games. The Mocs have matched their longest win streak since the 2009-10 season, although that streak started with a win against a non-Division I team.
UTC's last seven-game winning streak came in the 1998-99 season before Mason celebrated his eighth birthday. The Mocs could match that tonight and extend it with a win Saturday at Wofford.
"It's a crazy opportunity," Jones said. "We take App State real personal. To extend the streak to seven or eight, it would be real good to come back to our fans undefeated and on top of the conference."
Contact David Uchiyama at email@example.com or 423-757-6484. Follow him Twitter at twitter.com/UchiyamaCTFP.
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 ...