UTC star Jake Stephens out indefinitely; Mocs lose to ETSU

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / UTC basketball standout Jake Stephens, right, did not dress for Saturday's home game against rival East Tennessee State, which beat the Mocs 78-62. Stephens, the SoCon player of the week six times this season, is out indefinitely with a hand injury.

In hindsight, maybe it wasn't fair to place lofty expectations on the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball team this season.

And with the Mocs just above .500 overall (11-10) and 3-5 in the Southern Conference after Saturday's 78-62 loss to rival East Tennessee State University at McKenzie Arena, now might be a good time to reconsider some projections.

After last year's magical run to the SoCon regular-season and tournament championships and the program's first NCAA tourney appearance since 2016, the Mocs lost 80% of the scoring production from that team — as well as the head coach as Lamont Paris, after five years at UTC, moved on to South Carolina and the Southeastern Conference.

But then Dan Earl came in as head coach, and a big-time transfer soon followed in 7-foot pro prospect Jake Stephens — both from fellow SoCon program Virginia Military Institute — as well as a slew of offensively talented transfers. Combine that with the returning pieces from last year — all role players, rotational guys — and nothing could go wrong, right?

There were even suggestions that this team's ceiling could be higher than its predecessor. The problem with that line of thinking is it minimizes the importance and the impact of having time to grow together.

Last season's team was primarily the same as the one from the 2020-21 campaign, with a culture started by Paris and veteran guard David Jean-Baptiste and filtering down. That doesn't mean the current UTC team isn't connected, but to think the 2022-23 Mocs could mirror the version from last season isn't fair to either team.

It was an imperfect situation, because so much was placed on the broad shoulders of Stephens, a mismatch nightmare offensively because of his ability to score inside as well as proficiently pick opponents apart from the 3-point line, either by shooting or passing. If something happened to him, things could get dicey.

Well, something has happened to him. A hand injury led to Stephens being in street clothes during Saturday's matchup with ETSU (8-13, 4-4), a game in which the Mocs were relatively dominant in the first half on both ends and the polar opposite of that on the other end.

The first half? The Mocs shot 50% from the field and held the Bucs to 39%. After that though, those defensive shortcomings that have been a problem all year came back, as ETSU shot 19-of-24 in the second half and also had 28 of its 45 points in the paint. Conversely, UTC attempted 22 3-pointers in the final 20 minutes and made just three.

Good teams hang their hat on their defense when the shots aren't falling. UTC still has the SoCon's best offense, but the defense is among the bottom three in the 10-team league, based on advanced metrics.

The Mocs had been an inconsistent team searching for an identity outside of Stephens when he was present. They will return to that proverbial drawing board as long as the star big man is absent, which Earl said will be "an extended period of time," although he didn't rule out a potential return this season.

"I don't expect him to be back next game or this week or anything like that," Earl said. "We're still getting him looked at by the doctors and reviewing everything, but my heart hurts for him because he's such a good kid. He gave up a lot of other opportunities to come here with us because he wanted to accomplish big things. For him to be out for what looks like a while, it's just hard for all of us and certainly for Jake.

"We're thinking about him, and we'll see where this goes."

The Buccaneers, who trailed 42-33 at halftime, were paced Saturday by Jordan King (29 points, seven rebounds, five assists), Jalen Haynes (23 points, 13 rebounds), and Jamarius Hairston (10 points, seven rebounds).

Dalvin White led the way for the Mocs with 14 points, Demetrius Davis had nine points and six rebounds, and Randy Brady had eight points and a team-high seven rebounds. It's going to be players such as Davis -- oozing with potential -- and Brady, along with guys like 6-foot-7 senior KC Hankton, a holdover from last season who started in Stephens' place, and freshman Sam Alexis to help fill the void.

The next test for the Mocs is Wofford, which visits at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

"We're just going to have to spend more time in the gym together," Davis said. "We've got to play harder to make up for Jake for the time being, and keep the next-play mentality."

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com.