published Thursday, March 6th, 2014

Nobody knew what to expect or who many of them were; now everyone knows they are ... Wade's Bunch

  • photo
    UTC men's basketball coach Will Wade speaks to the media at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
    Photo by Angela Lewis /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

The unofficial poll is far from unanimous.

There were several votes for junior point guard Ronrico White. Other University of Tennessee at Chattanooga players voted for Virginia Commonwealth transfer Justin Tuoyo. There were also nominations for sophomores Gee McGhee and Casey Jones, and there was even a nod for junior Lance Stokes.

Maybe each is the funniest guy on the team.

It's possible that has been the case at some point during a surprising season that continues Saturday at 6 p.m. with the second-seeded Mocs playing either Georgia Southern or Furman in Asheville, N.C.

"Every day is a new adventure," junior Martynas Bareika said. "Somebody is going to do something to make your day.

"You're always going to be able to make fun of somebody for doing something."

The players, coaches, and training staff just never know when that will happen or who will have everybody within earshot smiling and laughing.

Tuoyo could break out in a spontaneous dance. White could give somebody a look and a grin. Bareika, who grew up in Lithuania, could say something that doesn't quite translate to American culture. Or even coach Will Wade could deliver a one-liner about one of his players pursuing a good-looking girl.

"Our guys have a real love for one another. They understand one another and they root for one another," Wade said. "Chemistry, family, is something that you can't put your finger on. But you know when you don't have it."

These guys have it.

Other SoCon teams have more talent and probably should have finished the regular season ahead of UTC (18-13, 12-4) in the standings. But those teams don't have the cohesiveness that the Mocs began developing when Wade became head coach on May 13, 2013.

Wade, at 31 years old, is the young patriarch of a group of 14 guys aged 18-22, a staff whose ages range from 22 to 39 and a managerial staff of college kids. He has blended all of those men into a family.

"If I feel that I can trust you, and have confidence in you, then you're my brother," said Stokes, who is the eldest of three sons. "We have a good blend of character traits on this team. And in my room."

Stokes' roommates are Tuoyo, Jones and White. That's a new guy, a sophomore and a team captain in one shared space.

"Tuoyo is a goofball," Stokes said. "Casey is a quiet goof. Rico keeps the room in check. He's the overseer of everything and makes sure we don't do anything crazy. He's very much in control."

Stokes' description of White also applies to how the junior point guard plays on the floor.

He's in control.

Take last Thursday's win at Western Carolina, for example. White, a lefty, waved his right hand for Bareika to go to the corner. White's defender took a step back to prevent a pass to Bareika, then White rose and hit a 3-pointer to get UTC within 81-80 with 22 seconds left in overtime.

On WCU's inbounds play, Stokes and McGhee tied up Tom Tankelewicz, forcing a turnover. Then Jones hit a jump shot to put UTC ahead by one.

Wade called that play. He also called the play for Bareika to shoot a 3-pointer to tie the game just seconds from the end of overtime.

That one game, a significant victory, is emblematic of how the Mocs have become a band of brothers. All knew in their hearts and trusted that Bareika would slide behind White to hit the 3-point shot. They believed that Jones -- on an out-of-bounds play -- would sink the key jumper in overtime.

They knew because they trust one another in all aspects of their lives from on-court situations to off-court family, academic and relationship issues.

"My brothers here are like my brothers and sisters back home," said Jones, who has nine siblings. "It's a new definition of family. But family is sticking up for each other through everything.

"We stay together all day on the court, and off the court we're always together."

The Mocs have devoured so much chicken at Champy's Chicken -- a hot spot across Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard from their dormitory apartment -- that they sought new spots for team dinners.

And the dinners were spontaneous.

Players exchanged texts like, "Where U at?"

Jones, a sophomore from New Orleans, had those words pop up on his phone during a day off from practice but a day for interviews.

"I just got a text, 'Where was I?'" Jones said as Pryor, Robertson, Stokes and McGhee entered McKenzie Arena.

"We all came from lifting together," Robertson said. "We're more of a family-orientated team starting from the top to the bottom. The coaches and the whole staff, it's better this year."

Assistant coach Casey Long witnessed the Mocs blending last year. He's seen them become loving brothers this season.

"They became a meshing group because they were able to push each other in the offseason and preseason," said Long, who has had at least one player per day pop into his office just to talk. "We, as coaches, talk to them and listen to them. As much as they're basketball players, they're growing kids, too -- learning life."

Only eight players on the current roster were UTC players last year. Wade had the job of blending in six new players -- including walk-ons and transfers -- and making them mesh.

Wade did so with a grueling preseason stretch, which included training from a Navy SEAL, and forced the players to rely on one another instead of tapping out.

"They were looking for a loving, caring environment where they knew they were cared for beyond what happens on the court," Wade said, noting that former coach John Shulman had the same love for the players.

But the players on previous teams haven't meshed like they have this season.

"The first couple of months, they were testing the staff," Wade said. "They wanted to know if it's authentic. There was a feeling-out process. We have smart kids. You can't [con] them. We have street-smart kids. You can't fool them."

Alex Bran, a sophomore walk-on from Memphis who played quarterback at St. George's High School, is as wise as they come. He played at least 11 minutes per game while White recovered from a hip injury and worked his way back into the rotation. Bran said he did his job because he loves his brother, his teammate, his friend.

"We'll do anything for each other," Bran said. "We're all close. We're a bunch of goofy dudes."

Contact David Uchiyama at duchiyama@timesfreepress.com or 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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