Wiedmer: March Madness always will be special to UTC's Lamont Paris

Wiedmer: March Madness always will be special to UTC's Lamont Paris

March 14th, 2018 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

UTC men's basketball head coach Lamont Paris encourages his Mocs in this Feb. 17, 2018, staff file photo.

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

For the first time in eight years, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga basketball coach Lamont Paris isn't helping ready a team for the NCAA tournament. After seven years of breaking down video, preparing scouting reports and working 20 hours a day each March as a Wisconsin assistant, Paris missed the Big Dance at the close of his first season rebuilding the Mocs.

That doesn't mean he won't sneak a peek when this year's tourney begins its main draw Thursday.

"I'll watch some of it," he said Tuesday. "I'll shed a single tear (that he's not coaching in it), then get back to work."

Other than hoisting the championship trophy, Paris has marched as far as you can in March. Working under former Badgers coach Bo Ryan for six years, he helped guide Wisconsin to the Final Four in 2014 and to the national championship game in 2015. He was also a part of three Sweet 16 runs, including last season, when Florida's Chris Chiozza broke Badgers hearts the nation over with an improbable running 3-pointer at the end of overtime.

"We probably should have lost in regulation," Paris said of that defeat last March 24 in Madison Square Garden. "I remember looking at the clock and the score and wondering, 'How does it go down this time? How do we pull this one out?' It was just belief."

It was actually Wisconsin reserve Zak Showalter hitting a triple that was eerily similar to the one Chiozza would bag five minutes later. Spotting Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers and two-time U.S. Open golf winner Andy North sitting in the stands, Showwalter then turned to face Rodgers while duplicating his discount double-check belt-buckle gesture.

"If we'd won, that might have become the most famous moment in Wisconsin basketball history," Paris said.

But the Badgers didn't win, which is both the yen and yang of the tournament.

Or as Paris noted, "It's one of the best winner-takes-all events in all of sports."

It's certainly one of the most hectic for coaches, be they head coaches or assistants.

"It's a crazy, crazy time," he said. "From the moment you learn who you're playing on Selection Sunday, it's a blur. You're in scramble mode until it's over. Then, if you make it to Monday night and the title game, you go home on Tuesday before leaving Thursday to recruit again. But everyone hopes they'll be in that spot."

March gladness and sadness started for a 12-year-old Paris in 1985. That was the apex of Hoya Paranoia, the Patrick Ewing-led Georgetown Hoyas about to defend the national championship they'd won the year before in that '85 final against Villanova.

"That's the first time I'd really followed the tournament," he said. "It was both exciting and disappointing (after Georgetown lost)."

That support for Georgetown began to wane in the early 1990s, when Paris began playing for the College of Wooster Fighting Scots.

"I became less a fan of college basketball in general and more a fan of the school I was playing for," he said.

More than two decades later, his impressive work ethic and skill set as a Wisconsin assistant made a fan of former UTC athletic director David Blackburn, who almost instantly reached out to Paris when Matt McCall left last spring to coach at Massachusetts.

And to listen to the Mocs coach discuss his seven Marches in Madison is to understand why.

"You're watching film as long as your eyes can stand it," he said. "You have managers bring you food and drinks. I don't drink coffee but I'd drink enough Diet Cokes to become a spokesman. You wake up as early as possible. You're running around so much, trying to cover so many things, that you feel like the Tasmanian Devil."

Not surprisingly, when it comes to winning, Paris believes the devil is in the details.

"You have to defend at a high level," he said. "And then you have to finish those defenses with rebounds. You also have to know who you are offensively. Do what you do well. And it helps if you have a player who can make plays on his own when you need it. You usually need a go-to guy late in a game."

If you're scanning your brackets, the teams on this year's top three seed lines who best fill that bill (including go-to players) are No. 1 seeds Villanova (Jalen Brunson) and Kansas (Devonte Graham), second-seeded Duke (Grayson Allen and Marvin Bagley) and North Carolina (Joel Berry II) and third-seeded Michigan State (Miles Bridges).

On the other hand, Paris helped Wisconsin make those Final Four runs thanks to team ball, all for one and one for all, especially in dispatching previously undefeated Kentucky (38-0) in the 2015 national semifinals.

"We'd lost to them the year before (in the Final Four)," he said. "I think we were 100 percent glad that we were playing them again. That was one of the loosest teams I've ever been around, just a bunch of the funniest, happy-go-lucky guys I've ever seen. But we were very even-keeled on the court. We'd been there before and we understood what it took to win in those situations."

Alas, they didn't win it all. After opening a nine-point second-half lead against Duke in the final, Wisconsin was done in by a surprising number of fouls (the Badgers were among the fewest-fouls-committed schools in the country until that final half) and hard-charging Blue Devils freshman Allen.

But however it ended, Paris says the way March Madness begins each spring for 68 teams is always special.

"Walking down the tunnel to the court," he said, "is the best feeling ever."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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