Athletic director Rick Hart has opened his e-mail to find it scattered with complaints about the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball program.

Not a single message of the sort greeted him Thursday morning.

"We have some passionate fans -- some of whom have earned the right to voice and express all of their opinions, good and bad -- and they do that from time to time with our sports and sometimes myself," Hart said Thursday afternoon. "That's part of what we do.

"We live by that passion and that energy, and caring about what we do is what fuels our program."

The Mocs hit what they hope to be rock bottom of this season Wednesday. In the afternoon, coach John Shulman indefinitely suspended freshman Josh Odem and junior Ridge McKeither for a violation of team rules.

In the evening, UTC played its worst game of the year. The Mocs lost 78-54 to Samford, a last-place Southern Conference team that hadn't scored more than 70 points in a game this season and averaged 56.9 per game.

"You can't lie and say it doesn't hurt and it doesn't burn," point guard Keegan Bell said. "When we have stuff like this, it's a bitter sting."

The season is not over. UTC (13-13, 5-8) has five more regular-season conference games before the SoCon tournament, where it will need to win four games in four days to repeat as champion.

If they don't win out, these Mocs would be the fourth UTC team to finish with a losing SoCon record since the school entered the league for the 1977-78 season.

"I'm trying to figure out why on earth we're struggling. Then I realized we took our third and fourth leading scorer off the team," said Shulman, whose contract was extended through the 2013-14 season after last year's trip to the NCAA tournament.

"We have missed (54) man games this year. When you do that, it's hard to get in a flow," he said. "Once you get somebody going in, another goes out. It's been cruel and unusual punishment for the team."

Yet it's gone about the way Hart expected, the AD said, considering UTC lost five senior starters and returned less than 10 percent of its scoring from last year.

"I'm not sure that anything has happened this season that's surprised me," Hart said. "Usually you experience a year or so when things aren't always on the upswing. It looks like we are in that phase of progress right now in terms of trying to return to the top.

"I think John has handled it well. So much has happened this season."

Only four UTC players have been in every game this season due to injuries to Chris Early, Dante Harvey, Troy Cage, the early-season suspension of Ty Patterson, the recent suspensions and the death of McKeither's stepfather.

The Good: The Mocs reeled off six straight wins beginning with one over Long Island in the Dr Pepper Classic. They also beat Eastern Kentucky, Georgia Southern, UNC Greensboro and The Citadel, in that order, with The Citadel win coming on a buzzer-beater.

The Bad: The Mocs went on two debilitating road trips. They lost three in a row on the road as part of a four-game losing streak and lost back-to-back games in Charleston last weekend to start their current three-game slide.

The Ugly: The Mocs lost to last-place Samford 78-54 before only 3,031 fans in McKenzie Arena just hours after UTC announced that Josh Odem and Ridge McKeither have been suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules.

"My first year, Jerice (Crouch) missed the second game of the Dr Pepper Classic and that was it," Shulman said. "Two years ago, when we had disaster (a 15-18, 6-12 season) when Khalil (Hartwell) tore his ACL and Keyron (Sheard) dislocated his collarbone, we missed 23 man games. It was hard to get anything going or get it right."

This year has been similar to that season, only worse, considering the number of players who have been out and the nature of their absences.

"John is responsible for managing all elements of our basketball program, and when you look at it comprehensively, that includes a lot of things that don't happen between the baselines," Hart said. "I think he's done a very admirable job of keeping this team together."

Shulman had a meeting and practice scheduled for Thursday but scrapped those plans after Wednesday's debacle and gave the players and coaches the day off.

"I want them to get away, to remember that it's a basketball game and they enjoy playing the game," Shulman said. "Why is UConn struggling? Why is North Carolina struggling? Louisville? They were the No. 1 seed in the (NCAA) tournament last year."

The answer is roster turnover.

"North Carolina won the national championship last year and lost all those pros," Shulman said. "I view the SoCon tournament as our version of winning the national championship. I wish we could be North Carolina for a national title. Davidson gave it a run two years ago, and Chattanooga gave it a run in 1997. That doesn't normally happen."

Neither does a losing SoCon season.

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