Mark Wiedmer: Mocs' basketball schedule should please UTC fans

Mark Wiedmer: Mocs' basketball schedule should please UTC fans

August 2nd, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

The email sounded a wee bit suspicious. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball program was releasing its 2012-2013 schedule Wednesday morning?

Really? Who does that on the week fall football practice begins for everyone from Tennessee to Georgia to UTC's Mocs?

Wouldn't a decision such as that signal that the schedule belongs in the witness protection program?

Wouldn't you only do that if you were about to again disappoint the wary and withering fan base with another depressing December diet of Spalding, Toccoa Falls, Warren Wilson and Berea?

Then the release made its way through cyberspace to my laptop. Hmmmm. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Yes, UTC will open with non-Division I Tennessee Temple, but if you can't help your hometown brethren, who can you help? And fellow small fry Reinhardt visits McKenzie Arena on Dec. 21, an apparent early Christmas present for Mocs coach John Shulman's young team.

That's where the cream puffs end, though. Everyone else is pure Division I. And 10 of the first 13 games are in Bigger Mac, which is about all Shulman can ask for heading into a season that will likely determine how many more winters the ninth-year head coach paces the UTC sideline.

Yet that's also where at least some responsibility falls to Moc Maniacs throughout the region to show such a schedule upgrade is appreciated.

If UTC is to return to playing opponents worthy of its rich tradition, the fans must support the program at least enough to prevent the Mocs from losing money.

Past visits from mid-major powers such as Creighton, Murray State and Oral Roberts have never captured the fans' interest to any great degree. Even a visit from then-No.15 Georgia Tech in Dec. of 2009 couldn't stir more than a few thousand to McKenzie.

Not that this is a non-conference home schedule to make folks momentarily forget football. There isn't a certain NCAA tourney team in the bunch. The biggest names are arguably Louisiana Tech - which lost to New Mexico State in the WAC title game last season - Austin Peay (which won at UT last year) and Utah Valley State, which will join High Point and Peay in the Dr. Pepper Classic.

But almost all the home non-conference games are against respectable mid-majors. Even Southeast Missouri State - where former UTC coaching legend Ron Shumate worked after leaving the Mocs - arrives for a November game.

Maybe SEMO and UTC should both lure Shumate back to the bench as an honorary coach. He could sit on UTC's bench the first half and SEMO's the second.

Yet whatever the Mocs and Redhawks do or don't do regarding Shu, the four-team round-robin of UTC, SEMO, Troy and La. Tech in the CBE Classic inside McKenzie between Nov. 18 and 20 will be the best group of games seen over consecutive days in the Scenic City since the 2009 SoCon tourney.

Then there are the road games at non-conference giants Kansas, LSU and Georgia Tech. All three of those schools have reached the Final Four in the last decade and KU's Phog Allen Fieldhouse is the Fenway Park of college basketball, regarded by many as the best venue in the sport.

Whether or not this is the schedule Shulman needs to keep his job is debatable.

He was certainly smart to say, "I am excited ... to redeem ourselves from last year," given the team's 11-21 record.

But by the time Davidson arrives to begin SoCon play on Dec. 1, Shulman will almost certainly be working for a new athletic director who may not have the patience of former AD Rick Hart.

In that sense, a tougher, better home schedule could actually hurt Shulman on two fronts. It will be harder to pile up victories. And if the fans stay away as they have in recent years, Shulman supporters can't point to an abysmal home schedule as an excuse for empty seats.

But those are negatives. This is a day to accentuate the positive. And this home schedule is the best seen at McKenzie since East Tennessee, UT, Murray State and Wright State all visited our town during the 2007-2008 season.

Those Mocs finished 18-13 and tied for first in the SoCon North. If this UTC team does the same, Mocs Nation should fill the majority of McKenzie's seats from November forward.

In fact, given this schedule, the Mocs and their coach aren't the only ones in UTC Blue and Gold who need to redeem themselves.