Wiedmer: UTC's Shulman needs a SoCon tourney miracle

Wiedmer: UTC's Shulman needs a SoCon tourney miracle

February 20th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

What are two NCAA Tournament berths in seven years worth to a true mid-major college basketball program?

Conversely, how do three losing seasons over the past six years damage that same program when the latest of those will include at least 20 losses for the first time in its 34 years on the Division I level?

Moreover, at what point is it fair to determine that the losing seasons are more the norm than the NCAA tourney seasons for the coach who has presided over both?

Those are the questions that face University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletics director Rick Hart and chancellor Dr. Roger Brown in the wake of the Mocs' shocking 48-46 home loss to the lowly Citadel on Saturday night.

Has this once proud and dominant UTC program really suffered nothing more than a surprisingly consistent run of "bad karma," to borrow a UTC coach John Shulman talking point?

After all, there have been seven games lost this season by three points or less, including four of the last five home games?

Or is the fact that so many of these games keep coming down to fate's fickle finger a certain sign that UTC has slipped, that the school many Mocs fans still see as the flagship of the Southern Conference is now no better than the third, fourth or fifth in a very average league.

After all, before anyone in Mocsville whines about the heartbreaking defeats of this winter, they should cast their minds back to last year, to the seven games won by three points or less or in overtime.

Sports doesn't always equal out over the short term, but it often has a way of playing fair for the long haul.

Beyond that, while losing to dominant Davidson by a point last month was understandable, falling to The Citadel - a team that had lost 11 straight games, a team whose only victories had come against Army, Virginia-Wise, Florida Christian and Samford - is a different matter.

When you suddenly find yourself in the company of Virginia-Wise and Florida Christian are you headed in the right direction?

There's also this: Retrieving a line from Shulman following last year's SoCon tourney quarterfinal loss to a veteran Furman team that started four seniors and a junior against the Mocs' four juniors and a senior inside McKenzie - "There's something about seniors at tournament time."

UTC has played like anything but a senior team this season. Senior teams tend to win close games instead of lose them. Senior teams tend to follow their coach's advice, unlike point guard Keegan Bell, who jacked up a 25-foot (at least) 3-pointer against The Citadel with at least 10 seconds on the game clock rather than follow Shulman's wish to pass it to either Dontay Hampton or Ricky Taylor on the wings.

Of course, Bell had tied the Davidson game with a similar deep shot, so maybe it wasn't awful for him to ignore his coach's play, even though he was already 0-3 from the 3-point line when he took that shot.

And while it has become as easy to mock Shulman's Fire defense as a Kardashian marriage, it was a double-team of the Bulldogs' Mike Groselle with 14 seconds left that forced the turnover that gave the Mocs a chance to win.

Beyond that, for whatever reason, this senior class has become far less than the sum of its parts. Assuming no underclassmen defect - and that's a big if that Hart needs to investigate - and UTC's signing class reports healthy and eligible next fall, Shulman's 2012-2013 team would appear far better suited to his coaching philosophy than this one.

And there's the problem for Hart and Brown. Do you roll the dice for at least one more season, unwilling or unable to pay Shulman nearly $280,000 not to coach the final two years on his contract? Or do you say eight is enough, mindful that few coaches dramatically reverse a program for the good after that many years of service?

For the coach's short-term job security, Shulman best hope that there really is something about seniors at conference tournament time.