Wiedmer: Tonight's when we begin to uncover the real Mocs

Wiedmer: Tonight's when we begin to uncover the real Mocs

January 5th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

UTC men's basketball coach John Shulman reacts during a game at McKenzie Arena in this file photo.

UTC men's basketball coach John Shulman reacts during...

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

Dressed head-to-toe in serious black, his eyes and voice brimming with passion, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga basketball coach John Shulman was clearly excited to be back preparing for Southern Conference foes on Wednesday afternoon.

"Davidson's beaten Kansas and [College of] Charleston's beaten Tennesssee," said Shulman of the league's signature non-conference wins on the eve of tonight's SoCon home opener against Western Carolina.

"But once you get into league play, you're either up five or down five with five minutes to play in every game. You know everything they're going to do, and they know everything you're going to do. There are no secrets."

Yet which Mocs team will show up against the Catamounts is a very big secret. Will it be the one that beat Longwood by seven more points than Vanderbilt did? Or will it be the team that lost home games to both Kennesaw State and Gardner-Webb?

"We're in a hole," said Shulman in reference to UTC's current 0-2 league mark and 6-9 overall record. "These are clearly important games. But are they must-wins? I'm not going to say that. What happens if you say it's a must-win and you lose?"

What is beginning to be said in emails to this newspaper, on internet message boards and in casual conversation throughout the Scenic City is that the Mocs seem to be improving.

Monday's loss at Tennessee aside, UTC appeared to change for the good at No. 2 Kentucky, challenging the bigger, quicker, more talented Wildcats throughout, despite the final 87-62 loss.

In fact, if someone wants to link senior forward Chris Early's ongoing suspension for Twitter-gate to that improvement -- especially since Shulman disciplined Early on the eve of the UK game -- so be it.

Both the Mocs and Shulman have been tight-lipped about when or if Early might return, and each time UTC wins without him undoubtedly places more outside pressure on Shulman to cut him loose.

Then again, Shulman -- to his credit -- has never grown rabbit ears where fans are concerned. In the end, he will almost assuredly do what he thinks is best for the team over the individual, but he's also long held a soft spot in his heart for Early and his occasionally turbulent past. From this corner, the player's possible return remains a toss-up.

But the Mocs' improvement is obvious through three straight wins after the UK defeat prior to Monday's loss at Knoxville.

The defense is more active, the offense crisper, the overall energy better, even if starting point guard Keegan Bell bemoaned a slight decline in that department against the Vols.

"You go to Kentucky or Tennessee wanting to win, but not looking at it as a must-win," said Bell. "We always say the season doesn't start until after Christmas with conference play. The intensity goes up."

That the first two conference games were on the road at Georgia Southern on Dec. 1 and the College of Charleston on Dec. 3, screwed up that philosophy. But the final 16 league games all fall in 2012.

"And we're getting better every day," said callow freshman Ronrico White. "We've even gotten better since Longwood and Utah Valley in the Dr Pepper."

The record says the Mocs are 0-4 in games they should have lost (Indiana, Butler, Kentucky and Tennessee), 5-0 in games they should have won (Warren Wilson, Savannah State, Spalding, Hiwassee and Longwood) and 1-5 in toss-up games (Kennesaw, Gardner-Webb, Georgia Southern, College of Charleston, Mercer and Utah Valley).

But Utah Valley was also the last of those games and the five losses were by a total of 29 points with two coming in overtime.

Said Bell, "I feel better going into the SoCon than at any time since I've been here. In our league, we can be special."

After all, Christmas is over. Time to turn up the intensity and the win total. Time to find out whether these Mocs can still become special ... or merely especially frustrating.