UTC men's basketball: Three storylines to watch in 2021-22

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / UTC guard Malachi Smith shoots during a SoCon game against East Tennessee State on Feb. 15 at McKenzie Arena. Smith, an all-conference first-team selection, is among the core group returning for the Mocs as they prepare for their fifth season under coach Lamont Paris.

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball team opened practice last week for its 2020-21 schedule, with the Mocs coming off an 18-8 record in their fourth season under coach Lamont Paris. They started 9-0 before going 9-7 in Southern Conference play and then losing their first game at the league tournament.

UTC hosts a Nov. 4 exhibition against Ohio's College of Wooster - Paris was a two-time all-conference selection for the NCAA Division III program - then opens its regular season Nov. 9 against West Coast Conference member Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles.

Here are three storylines regarding the Mocs as they prepare for a season they hope will include the program's first NCAA tournament appearance since 2016.

photo AP photo by Charlie Riedel / Kansas forward Silvio De Sousa dunks during a game against East Tennessee State on Nov. 19, 2019, in Lawrence, Kan. De Sousa has transferred to UTC and is expected to help add the interior depth the Mocs needed.

Has the depth improved? The core group returns, but any optimism surrounding this team will be based on the belief it has depth this season. Not more depth - just depth in general. The Mocs played large portions of their 2020-21 schedule with just eight players, and in a couple cases, the quality of play dipped after the first six. UTC lost Stefan Kenic to the professional ranks in the offseason, but Paris added some interior depth in Kansas transfer Silvio De Sousa and University of Central Florida transfer Avery Diggs. There wasn't much need to add to the perimeter, but the team brought in quick sophomore guard Tada Stricklen as well as Randy Brady, a freshman from Chattanooga who played at Hamilton Heights. Also on board is sophomore guard/forward Grant Ledford, who appeared in 21 games in 2019-20 but wasn't available last season until the SoCon tourney loss to East Tennessee State, a game the Mocs played without two key starters due to COVID-19. So in measuring the depth, this team didn't just add bodies, it added players and probable contributors.

Early challenges on schedule: Paris would not have put together this type of nonconference schedule in seasons past, because he would not have felt like he had the team to compete. That's not the case this year, when the Mocs will face three opponents (Belmont, Loyola Marymount and Virginia Commonwealth University) that were ranked in the top 70 in the Rating Percentage Index last season and three others (College of Charleston, Lipscomb and Murray State) that have experienced recent postseason success. The Mocs finished with just two wins (both on the road) against top-100 foes last season (University of Alabama at Birmingham, Wofford), but now it appears they'll have more chances.

Does this team have what it takes? The Mocs have the sort of roster that causes problems in March. Of 10 players who could contribute, six are in their fifth or sixth season of eligibility, and that doesn't include All-SoCon first-team guard Malachi Smith or East Hamilton alum Jamaal Walker, a sophomore who was one of only three Mocs to play all 26 games last season, eight of them starts in his case. What were once weaknesses (depth, namely on the interior) appear to have been addressed with De Sousa and Diggs, and Stricklen's speed provides an additional lineup option for Paris, who likes to mix and match. The last time the Mocs had this sort of depth, they won 29 games and advanced to the NCAA tournament. The expectations won't be any different this season.

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.