UTC season of promise falls to futility

UTC season of promise falls to futility

February 8th, 2012 by David Uchiyama in Sports - College

UTC head basketball coach John Shulman paces on the sidelines in McKenzie arena.

UTC head basketball coach John Shulman paces on...

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball season began with such promise.

The Mocs were picked by the Southern Conference coaches and media covering the league to win the North Division -- and for good reason. They had five seniors returning from a division co-champion squad and featured a starting lineup of four seniors and a transfer from the University of Georgia at center.

It was a year that fans, players and coaches looked forward to with realistic hopes of a 20-win season, knocking off a vulnerable University of Tennessee team and repeating as champions of their division, or at least earning a first-round bye in the SoCon tournament.

That anticipation has evolved into agony.

UTC is 9-16 overall and 3-9 in the SoCon and have lost seven straight games -- its longest losing streak since becoming a Division I school in 1977-78.

"No, it's not acceptable," coach John Shulman said. "So what do you want me to do about it? We didn't mean for this to happen. I would love to have the team that we started the season with. But that's part of sports."

The Mocs are in last place in the division they were predicted to dominate, and The Citadel (3-7, 1-11) is the only SoCon squad with fewer wins overall and in the conference.

The Mocs have yet to win a road game -- they are 0-12 away from McKenzie Arena with only two opportunities left -- and they are on track to become the first 20-loss team of the school's Division I era.

"I thought we were going to go undefeated," senior guard Ricky Taylor said before practice Tuesday. "We were bringing back almost all of the same pieces from last year."

Last year, the Mocs shared the North Division title with Western Carolina and earned rings for their efforts after going 16-16 overall and 12-6 in the SoCon.

This season has been much different.

"Three-and-nine at UTC is not acceptable," Shulman said. "Do you want me to go back and change time? Can't do that."

There has been turmoil off the court, too. Senior Chris Early tweeted a handful of disparaging remarks about Shulman in November including, "I would run through hell in gasoline draws than to play for this man another year."

Shulman suspended Early indefinitely on Dec. 16 and dismissed him from the team on Jan. 8.

On the court, the Mocs suffered unexpected losses to Kennesaw State (3-22) and Gardner-Webb (10-15) in McKenzie Arena.

"We thought we could win a lot of games and go to the NCAA tournament," senior Omar Wattad said. "For whatever reason, games are falling the wrong way. I think there were only a couple of games this year that we had no business winning: at Davidson, at Kentucky and I guess at Indiana."

There have been injuries. Wattad missed two games with back problems and Taylor has been hampered by a wrist injury, but those are bumps and bruises almost all teams endure.

The devastating injuries came when UTC lost power forwards Jahmal Burroughs and Zaccheus Mason on Jan. 26 against Davidson, forcing freshman wing Lance Stokes and walk-on Drew Baker into the limelight at the 4 position.

"I really wish we had those two pieces right there," Taylor said. "Z is an impact player. When we can't make shots, we need Z's toughness. It's a big deal in our offense."

There was a streak of success. UTC won three straight home games to re-open the SoCon season in early January.

Shulman said, "We got it to 9-9 and 3-2 in the league."

But three straight road losses followed. Then came two defeats at home and two more on the road last weekend, including an 88-61 thumping at conference leader Davidson. That equals seven straight losses, three of them coming in the final seconds and by three points or less.

"We expected to do well," Stokes said. "We're on a slide."

It's a slide the Mocs hope to end Thursday when they face UNC Greensboro (9-15, 7-5), which lost 11 straight -- with a coaching change in the middle -- and then won six consecutive games.

"We had high expectations to win the league and go to the NCAA tournament," junior Drazen Zlovaric said. "Not even in my dreams -- nightmare -- would it go this way.

"This is so underachieving."