The Mocs' train to the top of the Southern Conference is running behind schedule.
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga coach John Shulman said Monday that his team is not where he expected it to be heading into conference competition at Georgia Southern on Thursday.
It would be one thing if he had a squad full of freshmen and sophomores, but these Mocs are an experienced bunch with four returning starters, a junior center and a senior post as the sixth man. Yet they are 2-4 with unexpected home losses to Kennesaw State and Gardner-Webb, the latter by two points on Sunday.
"We're not a basketball team that I'm real proud of at this moment," Shulman said Monday before practice. "I'm not real proud of our coaches, myself and our team. We have to go to work. If it was late February, I'd be in a real panic."
UTC trailed KSU 37-31 at halftime and lost by six. It trailed Savannah State by 10 before winning 65-63 last Friday.
The Mocs were down 11 points to Gardner-Webb in the second half Sunday but led by two with 20 seconds to go in regulation and forced an errant 3-point shot with five seconds to go in overtime. But they lost 76-74 when Tashan Newsome laid in the miss with 2.4 seconds to go in the extra period.
"It's a heartbreaker, a game that we were supposed to win and fell short in," UTC senior Ricky Taylor said. "We play again and start SoCon play Thursday. We have to focus on that."
Shulman had his focus lasered in on his seniors following Sunday's loss when he said, "This is the seniors' team. When we went to the NCAA tournament in '05, that wasn't my team. That was Mindaugus [Katelynas] and Casey Long's team. When we went in '09, that was [Nicchaeus] Doaks and the seniors and Keyron [Sheard].
"This is their team, and what they want to make of their team is up to them."
Taylor and fellow seniors Omar Wattad and Jahmal Burroughs accepted those comments. Keegan Bell missed the start of practice because of a previously scheduled meeting, and the other senior, forward Chris Early, missed it all because of illness.
"[Shulman] is right because he's not the one out there playing," Taylor said. "His job is to set us up to be successful. It's up to us to finish the rest of the story. I agree with him wholeheartedly, and I agree that we need to step up as leaders."
UTC rated No. 317 in the RPI rankings on RealTimeRPI.com on Monday evening. The Citadel, at 332, was the only SoCon school with a lower ranking of the 344 teams listed.
"It is the seniors' team, and as returning players it's our job to push the team to do better," Burroughs said. "I agree with Coach."
He even agreed with Shulman's Sunday remark that Burroughs' statistical line looked identical to what the coach produced -- zeros across all categories except for two fouls in 17 minutes.
"Sometimes you'll have bad games," Burroughs said. "I never take offense to things like that because I know he wants the best for me and it's to keep me on my toes and let me know that I'm not doing my job."
Early spent the afternoon session in his on-campus apartment. He saw doctors early in the day, Shulman said, after falling ill around halftime of Sunday's game.
"I'm really concerned about Chris," Shulman said. "I put him back in the game, and 30 seconds later he's giving me the fist [signal] to come out. He was sick. They said his blood sugar was low, and that's scary. They're running a lot of tests."
Freshman wing Lance Stokes lost the soft cast on his left ankle and participated in light drills Monday. He is questionable for Thursday.
Contact David Uchiyama at email@example.com or 423-757-6484. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/UchiyamaCTFP.