UTC Mocs guaranteed bye in Asheville

UTC Mocs guaranteed bye in Asheville

February 17th, 2014 by David Uchiyama in Sports - College

UTC men's head basketball coach Will Wade calls out a play to his team.

UTC men's head basketball coach Will Wade calls...

Photo by Erin O. Smith /Times Free Press.

The Mocs will have to wait another day to play in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball team earned a first-round bye to the SoCon Tournament by surging out to a 10-2 conference mark in the 16-game schedule of the 11-team league.

UNCG's 82-77 overtime loss to Western Carolina on Sunday guarantees that the Mocs (16-11, 10-2) can finish no worse than fifth during the regular season. That result automatically advances the Mocs to the quarterfinals instead of playing on the first day as many expected in the preseason.

"We exceeded external expectations," head coach Will Wade said Sunday while on a three-state recruiting trip. "That's progress. But we want to do better than that."

With a first-year head coach, and coming off a 13-19 season -- including 8-10 mark in the SoCon -- the Mocs were picked to finish seventh in preseason balloting by the coaches and many other publications.

A .500 season, both overall and in the SoCon, were seen as long-shots before UTC opened its season again Covenant. That water-level mark was repeatedly reasonable after a home loss to Kennesaw State, getting smacked at UCLA and losing at Northern Kentucky.

Then the Mocs returned from Christmas break and won the Dr Pepper Classic and followed that with eight straight wins to start the SoCon season. They've had hiccups since -- including a 1-3 stretch -- before beating Western Carolina 83-73 on Friday in McKenzie Arena.

Now, with four SoCon regular-season games remaining, a 20-win season is in sight for a team that hasn't had one since the 2004-05 season.

"Coach has been real motivating, telling us the opportunity we have to win the SoCon this year," sophomore Casey Jones said last week. "We still have an incredible opportunity to win the championship if Davidson gets a loss. We want to win.

"We've been a losing program for a while and we want to win, which is enough motivation for me."

UTC was in first place for its first eight games of the conference season including two wins over Wofford and one over Elon. Then it lost at Davidson, beat Furman, and lost at Samford.

"One thing that gets lost is that we're 4-1 against the teams who are likely to get byes," Wade said. "We've beat the good teams. The Davidson loss wasn't what we wanted. We've won four against the top of our league, and that's a credit to our guys."

The Mocs will need help to win the SoCon championship out-right or share it. They're one game behind Davidson who holds the tie-breaker over UTC due to its loss in Belk Arena.

Should the schools finish tied, Davidson would have the tie-breaking advantage, earn the No. 1 seed in Asheville and an invitation to the NIT tournament should it lose in Blue Ridge. UTC would have to finish one-game ahead of Davidson and lose in the tournament to earn an NIT bid.

Wade's worry about seeding -- if his squad can't catch Davidson -- is about finishing in the top three because the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds will play each other and have a week to dissect their opponent on video. The top three teams will face a team that played in the first round.

"There's an advantage to being No. 1, 2, or 3," Wade said. "The 4-5 [seed] game will be a blood-bath between two good teams with a lot of time to prepare for each other."

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