Mark Wiedmer: Chattanooga Mocs improving, but few watching

Mark Wiedmer: Chattanooga Mocs improving, but few watching

November 21st, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

UTC men's basketball coach John Shulman.

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

Judging from the actual cheering, breathing, hopeful fans in the McKenzie Arena seats Tuesday night -- all 800 or so of them -- not that many University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball fans have much faith in these 2012-13 Mocs.

At least that seemed to be the vibe throughout much of UTC's 71-63 loss to Louisiana Tech.

That defeat dropped the Mocs to 1-4 on the season, which also just happens to be a four-game losing streak against the only four Division I teams they've played to date.

But that doesn't mean the youngest team John Shulman has coached in his nine years isn't getting better.

"Our stats are not quite equaling our results," he said. "We could have beaten Kansas. Could have beaten SEMO. Could have beaten Troy. Could have beaten Louisiana Tech. We didn't, but we gave ourselves a shot in every single game."

He's right, of course. UTC led Kansas at KU by eight at intermission. The Mocs led SEMO in the first half and Troy in the second. They tied a very good La. Tech team with 6:46 to go, only to watch the Bulldogs go on a 13-5 run to close out the game, at least partly because the Mocs committed four of their 24 turnovers in the game's final 6:17.

But at least they were there, in the hunt, on the edge of victory, even if the player they'd expected to start at point -- Dontay Hampton -- and their sixth man (Lance Stokes) are both injured and unavailable for the next six weeks.

So Shulman has reason to bemoan his team's luck at the moment even as it fights like no Shulman team has fought in at least three seasons.

But can it be enough to return fans to McKenzie in numbers great enough to not just save Shulman's job, but save a season?

Will the public look at numbers they should look at -- the Mocs' 14-rebound advantage (39-25), their 46 percent field-goal accuracy against a defensive-minded team capable of reaching the NCAA tournament, their 10-0 edge in second-chance points -- and forgive their turnovers and nine missed free throws in 19 attempts?

Will Mocs Nation -- so frustrated with this program the past two years -- give this young, spirited, talented team the support it will desperately need if it is to eventually prosper in an increasingly tough Southern Conference?

Beyond that, does UTC really think that publishing the season tickets sold (2,395) for attendance works when you can count less than 1,000 people in the stands?

"We can control boxing out," Shulman said, mindful that his team has won the rebounding war by double figures in three of his team's five games.

"We'll fix our free-throw shooting. I'm not worried about that."

The worries come on two fronts. Too many losses early. Too few fans in the seats. They are inexorably connected and, sadly, the losing may be easier to reverse than the apathy.

It is impossible to watch this young (five freshmen on the active roster), inexperienced (one returning starter) team and not see vast potential improvement down the road.

But with each loss, the fans' fickle faith in that improvement wanes. Shulman's saving grace may be that the athletic director's position may not be filled until late spring, which would seem to save Shulman for at least one more season, when all his "little children," as he calls them, will be much more mature.

Still, this team -- especially if Hampton and Stokes return healthy by mid-January -- has the potential to both excite and succeed.

"Last year, some people got an attitude," said sophomore guard Ronrico White. "This year, the chemistry is great both on and off the court. Everybody's working hard every day."

The message is obvious. There are no agendas with these Mocs, hidden or otherwise. They like each other; they trust each other; they play for each other.

"We're getting better," he said. "We're fighting every possession. Now we just have to get a win."

Then they have to hope that that first Division I win of this season leads to enough others to keep this team intact from the coaching staff down for at least one more season. Whether anybody shows up to watch or not.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com