published Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

Hype is building: UTC Mocs basketball team keeping level head in big times

UTC students Brandon Shepard, Blake Waldron, Jake Marinac, Wil Pope and Chris Gather, from left, celebrate the 77-67 Mocs win at McKenzie Arena on Saturday. The team's 10-game winning streak and 8-0 start in Southern Conference play has created excitement on campus and in the community.
UTC students Brandon Shepard, Blake Waldron, Jake Marinac, Wil Pope and Chris Gather, from left, celebrate the 77-67 Mocs win at McKenzie Arena on Saturday. The team's 10-game winning streak and 8-0 start in Southern Conference play has created excitement on campus and in the community.
Photo by Erin O. Smith.

HISTORIC RANKING

UTC’s 10-game winning streak has Will Wade’s Mocs ranked 25th in this week’s CollegeInsider.com Mid-Major Top 25, the first time the school ever has made that list.

“I am pleased for our players,” Wade said in a school release. “They’ve bought in, worked hard and played for each other, which has positioned us to be in this poll. While I am proud they are getting the recognition they deserve, we still have a lot of work to do. This not the end goal.”

Wichita State is No. 1 in the poll, with Gonzaga, Toledo, Green Bay and Harvard completing the top five.

  • photo
    UTC forward Z. Mason (30) looks to pass against Elon Thursday at McKenzie Arena.
    Photo by Erin O. Smith /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

  • photo
    UTC students Brandon Shepard, Blake Waldron, Jake Marinac, Wil Pope and Chris Gather, from left, celebrate the 77-67 Mocs win at McKenzie Arena on Saturday. The team's 10-game winning streak and 8-0 start in Southern Conference play has created excitement on campus and in the community.
    Photo by Erin O. Smith.
    enlarge photo

Zaccheus Mason noticed a different vibe walking on the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga campus Monday.

Ronrico White noticed it while eating downtown with his family over the weekend.

Their basketball team is popular.

They're two of the stars of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga team that is on a roll and drew 6,648 people to McKenzie Arena on Saturday for a 77-67 win over UNC Greensboro.

"It's been a lot of buzz around campus," Mason said. "A lot of people are really proud of us. People on and off campus have been excited about what we've been doing. That's good. That's what we need.

"We want to bring everybody around to join us. It's a good feeling to have people supporting us like they have."

The Mocs (14-8) have won 10 straight games dating back to the Dr Pepper Classic, which is the program's longest winning streak since 11 in a row in the Sweet 16 season of 1996-97. They've started the Southern Conference season with eight straight wins for only the third time in program history, including a 9-0 start in 1984-85 and 10-0 in 1981-82.

Sophomore guard Gee McGhee added to the social media buzz around the city by hitting a three-quarter-court shot just before the halftime buzzer Thursday, which landed him the top play of the day on ESPN's "SportsCenter."

All of that exceeds preseason expectations -- the Mocs were picked to finish seventh in the SoCon -- and adds to reasons for slaps on the back and congratulatory words while walking from their apartments or while ordering dinner.

"Ten in a row is a huge accomplishment," said White, who helped spur the streak by joining the rotation after an offseason hip injury. "We want to keep this thing going. We have to focus on what got us to this point, and that's been the little details."

Such success, especially for a team that lost 40 games over the previous two seasons, can be difficult to handle. But so far not for these Mocs, who under first-year coach Will Wade started learning about handling success after winning four straight, then six, then eight and now 10 in a row.

"Our guys' consistent approach has been really good," Wade said. "That's something that's easy to stray from when you have success. Winning attracts a lot of bad things and people do things for the wrong reason.

"Our guys have done a good job of staying away from those potholes."

Beating preseason favorite Elon, with a vocal 4,662 in attendance, and McGhee bringing all to a full roar with his heave at the horn presented one such pothole that Wade worried about Friday.

His team beat one of the best in the league by 21 points and was showcased on the most popular sports show in the country. Players were up past midnight responding to texts and tweets about the game and McGhee's miracle shot.

Their minds could have been elsewhere and effort could have been lacking in preparation for the Spartans. It wasn't.

"I thought we had a really good day of practice on Friday," Wade said. "I thought that was a big step for us to be mature and handle that. We're very routine-oriented. We didn't get out of routine or do anything different."

The Mocs' win Saturday giving them a 1 1/2-game lead in the SoCon standings over Davidson, which is their next opponent on Thursday in Davidson's Belk Arena.

"Success is very fleeting," Wade said. "I worked for Tommy Amaker [at Harvard] and he said, 'Peacock today, feather-duster tomorrow.'"

Halfway through the SoCon season, the Mocs -- with a fierce mockingbird as a mascot -- are playing the role of a pretty peacock.

"They're not giving out trophies at the halfway point," Wade said. "We've done as well as we could possibly do [in league play] to this point."

Contact David Uchiyama at duchiyama@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6484. Follow him at twitter.com/UchiyamaCTFP.

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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