Tanner: Wade's Mocs seek momentum for 2014

Tanner: Wade's Mocs seek momentum for 2014

December 28th, 2013 by Jim Tanner in Sports - Columns

UTC men's head basketball coach Will Wade.

UTC men's head basketball coach Will Wade.

Photo by C.B. Schmelter /Times Free Press.

Christmas is finally behind us, and the New Year is right around the corner.

The college football bowl season is in full swing and will continue to build over the weekend and into next week, leading up to the grand finale Jan. 6 when Auburn and Florida State will meet in the BCS title game.

It's a good time to be a sports fan.

As we wind down the college football season, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga basketball coach Will Wade is ready for the sports world to turn its focus to his sport.

Wade's Mocs return to action Sunday against Grand Canyon University at McKenzie Arena in the opening day of the Dr Pepper Classic -- an event that signals the start of a crucial stretch of the college basketball season as conference play begins in earnest.

"I know it's a tradition here," Wade said of UTC's longtime holiday showcase that also will feature Maine and Middle Tennessee this year. "People have told me that it's kind of the kickoff where people kind of put away football season and begin focusing on basketball ... as football is kind of in the rearview mirror.

"So we certainly want to make a good impression."

The Mocs haven't made the best of impressions on their first-year coach thus far, starting the season 4-8 with only one Division I win (over IUPUI) and losses both to high-major teams (UCLA) as well as fellow mid-majors (Morehead State, Northern Kentucky).

The struggles perhaps aren't totally unexpected given how far the program had fallen recently in addition to Wade's move to instill an up-tempo style of play with a team composed primarily of players he didn't know until just over six months ago.

The lack of success to start the season has forced Wade to alter his game plan somewhat to fit his team, moving ever so slightly away from the agressive man-to-man style he prefers to a trapping zone defense his team is better able to run successfully at this point.

"We're playing the zone. That's no secret," he said. "I'm not a huge fan of the zone, but it gives us the best chance to win. Our guys know I hate practicing it ... but we've added some spice to the zone a little bit with different traps out of the zone.

"You can't just sit back in a 2-3 zone and pack it in -- good teams are going to beat you -- so we've added some things to it."

One of the biggest questions facing the team heading into the Dr Pepper Classic and beyond is the status of senior big man Zaccheaus Mason, who has been hobbled with a broken bone in his toe.

Wade said Mason's status remains uncertain despite some healing over the Mocs' five-day Christmas break.

"It's improved with the time off, but how much it's improved is really yet to be determined," Wade said. "We're going to try to put him through a few more drills over the next couple of days as opposed to running on the side. ... We're just still not sure how his foot is going to react and how it's healed."

If there's a silver lining to Mason's injury it's been the play of junior Martynas Bareinka, who's flourished with four straight double-figure scoring performances, including 29 points against Northern Kentucky.

"Quite frankly we wouldn't have discovered that Marty is as much of a weapon as he is if Z hadn't gone down," Wade said. "Marty is our most efficient offensive player, and we're more efficient as a team when he's on the court.

"We're going to play him a lot more than he's been playing in the past, and when he's in I want him getting shots."

Bareinka's offensive awakening came as a surprise to many UTC fans. He averaged only 2.6 points per game in his first two Mocs seasons. But teammate Casey Jones said he knew all along that Bareinka could contribute more if he was given the chance.

"Actually it wasn't surprising at all," Jones said of Bareinka's hot streak. "Marty's one of the best shooters I've ever seen. Last year sometimes he'd make a bad play defensively, which would get him out of the game early, so he wouldn't really have the time on the court to do those types of things.

"But now we really don't have much offense, so even if he does mess up on defense he has to stay in the game anyhow. Actually, playing time has really helped his game a lot, and I'm really happy for him."

If Bareinka can continue to be an effective weapon on offense and Mason can return to the lineup soon, UTC could be primed to make a run in the all-important Southern Conference season, which begins Jan. 4 at Furman. If they can thrive in SoCon play, the Mocs' early struggles will be quickly forgotten.

Wade is hopeful that the work he and his players have put into learning a new system is starting to bear fruit heading into the Dr Pepper Classic, and he's ready to see if they can continue to get better in 2014.

"I think our guys are excited to play. I know I'm excited," he said. "I'm ready to get get back out there and compete.

"I really believe we've been making really good progress. I think from two days before the Northern Kentucky game [on Dec. 15] until now we've made a huge jump as a team. Our talking is better, I think we care about each other as a team and I think we've made some progress.

"Now our guys want that to show up on the scoreboard, and for them I hope it does."

That would be the best late Christmas present ever for a UTC fan base tired of losing and looking for a reason to cheer.

Contact Jim Tanner at jtanner@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6478. Follow him at twitter.com/jftanner.