Wiedmer: UTC's Will Wade winning the preseason

Wiedmer: UTC's Will Wade winning the preseason

October 15th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball coach Will Wade.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball team's public scrimmage just completed Saturday afternoon inside renovated McKenzie Arena, former Moc Eric Smith, class of 1981, introduced himself to new coach Will Wade.

Almost before "Smi..." escaped his lips, Wade shot back, "You hung the first one of those, didn't you?" then quickly pointed toward the championship banners hanging from the arena's rafters.

Given that Wade was still more than a year from being born in '81, the fact that he even knew of Smith's accomplishments is amazing. But what the alum said next is equally important.

"We started something," the Murfreesboro resident said. "And look at what developed. Look at all those banners."

They haven't added to the program's Southern Conference tournament championship banners since 2009, the last year the Mocs went to the NCAA tourney under former coach John Shulman, who also guided a March Madness appearance in 2005.

In some locales, two NCAA trips in nine seasons from a one-bid league like the Southern would be enough to satisfy even the most unrealistic fan base. But UTC isn't one of those places. Beginning with that 1981 season, the school has reached the Big Dance 10 times. The first eight of those took place from '81 to '97, which meant the Mocs marched into the Madness eight times in 17 seasons.

And we haven't even mentioned the 1977 NCAA Division II national championship after the runner-up finish of '76, which basically got the whole thing rolling.

So whether completely fair or not, Moc Maniacs the region over old enough to remember those giddy times believe their hoops heroes should win the SoCon's automatic bid at least every other year.

"I was there in Springfield [Mass.] in 1977 when we won it all," Henry Fischer said as he watched Saturday's workout. "I've been a season-ticket holder for 42 years. My father, E.C. Fischer, first bought season tickets in 1971 when we still played in Maclellan. I just know I'm very excited about this season. The hustle is unbelievable. I've seen more action in practice today than I've seen in a game in a long time."

It was exciting to watch, this controlled "Chaos" that Wade intends to create with full-court pressure defense and a fast-paced offense heavily dependent on 3-point shooting.

Or as sophomore guard Casey Jones noted of Wade's practices to date, "They're 10 times the intensity of last year."

But it's not just the breakneck practices that have impressed Jones and his teammates so far.

"This is just the beginning," Jones said as he scanned the new seats in McKenzie's lower level. "They're going to change the banners. Everything's going to be bigger and better."

Wade understandably is promising little in his first season. He knows his roster includes 10 freshmen and sophomores and just one senior: gifted forward Z. Mason.

"We've got a long way to go," the coach said. "But I like our effort; I like our willingness to learn."

The home opener against Covenant is 24 days from today. The Mocs face UCLA inside the Bruins' regally renovated Pauley Pavilion 16 days later, where the home team is certain to have several thousand fans as crazy as Hixson native and UTC senior Eric Cooksey, who showed up for Saturday's workout dressed head-to-toe in blue and gold, including yellow gold sunglasses.

"I'm very inspired by the new coach and players on campus," said Cooksey, who along with friend Walker Rhodes shouted encouragement throughout the 90-minute practice. "I think there's a new energy and belief in the program."

Cooksey's and Rhodes' energy was not lost on Wade, who said of the super fans, "We need more students like that. I loved their intensity. We need 1,200 more just like them."

Down the road, the school no doubt would love to see 7- to 8,000 more just like them, the way it used to be when McKenzie first opened, 18 months after Smith and his teammates reached the school's first Division I NCAA tourney.

But for Fischer that's not the primary goal of this season.

"This year's not so much about wins and losses," he said. "This season is about getting back to playing the game the way it should be played."

And as soon as that happens, a new row of banners is certain to follow.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.