Wiedmer: Big Z shows why hoops best for him

Wiedmer: Big Z shows why hoops best for him

January 13th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Wofford's Aerris Smith (14) puts a hand up as UTC's Zaccheus Mason (30) drains this first half jump shot Thursday at McKenzie Arena.

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

Every Sunday morning during the 2010 football season, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga basketball coach John Shulman would faithfully check the Ole Miss football stats.

"Just to see what Z did," he said. "Just to see if maybe there was a chance he'd want to play basketball again."

Z is Z. (for Zaccheus) Mason, who abandoned a promising college basketball future in the spring of 2009 for the pomp and pageantry of Southeastern Conference football.

Not that this was a whim or a prayer. At 6-foot-5, 247 pounds, the Nashville resident from Christ Presbyterian Academy certainly had the body to be a standout tight end in the SEC.

"And I loved the crowds," he said of his single season on the field with the Rebels after redshirting his first year. "The atmosphere was unbelievable."

But Mason hadn't grown up in the Music City idolizing NFL tight ends such as Tony Gonzalez or Jason Witten.

"I wanted to play basketball like Allen Iverson," he said, referencing the former NBA star. "I loved his midrange game, his fadeway. I loved how he could challenge bigger players."

So late last spring Mason gave Shulman a call. He wondered if the Mocs might still want him.

Thing was, on that day Shulman had no scholarship. No matter how much he once had hoped Mason would return to the hardwood, Shulman now had no spot for him.

At least he didn't when Mason first phoned. But as luck would have it, the NCAA soon ruled signee Manny Ochenje ineligible, which meant the Z Man could immediately become a Moc without paying his own way.

Yet even then there was a small problem. Senior point guard Keegan Bell ran to Shulman in a panic.

"What type of guy is he?" asked Bell, a stickler for chemistry.

"I think you'll like him," Shulman said.

By the end of the summer, Bell told his coach, "I love Z. He fits right in with us."

But nobody takes two years off from basketball to polish his football skills and returns to hoops with virtually the same skills he used to possess.

As Shulman noted, "He's used to playing five seconds and taking 35 seconds. No offense to the football world, but we're running all the time out here."

And it wasn't easy at first for either Z or his coach.

"I was used to watching him dunk on people's heads in AAU ball," Shulman said. "Those first few practices, I was like, 'Where's Z? What happened to Z?' As most people know, I've never been real patient."

During another practice, Mason took a charge. Shulman stopped play to give him a hug.

But the players could see immediately that there was vast potential.

After just one or two pickup games, senior forward Omar Wattad - the Mocs' leading returning scorer - told Mason, "Man, you can stroke it."

Finally, everybody began to see. Mason had eight points and eight rebounds at No. 2 Kentucky. Soon after came a 10-point, seven-rebound night against Longwood. Then nine points and nine rebounds last week against Western Carolina.

But Thursday night against Wofford, in a Southern Conference home game UTC absolutely, positively needed to win with its next three coming on the road, was without question Mason's best game from A to Z.

Hitting everything from fade-away 15-footers to free throws to putbacks, Mason totaled a team-high 17 points and game-high 13 rebounds in the Mocs' 51-48 victory.

Attempting to contain his enthusiasm, Shulman said, "I'm not yet ready to anoint him the next KG [NBA star Kevin Garnett] or [fellow NBA standout] Tim Duncan, but he's getting better."

When someone later told the defense-loving Shulman that Mason had said, "I love defense. Defense is fun. I'm having a blast out there," Shulman all but fell over.

"He said that?" he exclaimed. "He really said that?"

Said Wofford coach Mike Young of Mason, "He's a good-looking hombre."

To borrow an old line from Joe Namath, UTC fans can't wait until tomorrow because Mason is getting better looking on the basketball court every day.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.