Drazen Zlovaric tried talking with coach John Shulman during dead-ball periods in the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga basketball season opener.

He's made great strides since then.

Zaccheus Mason raised his fist to ask for a substitute after just a few minutes of playing early in the season. The former Ole Miss tight end can play for much longer stretches now.

Jahmal Burroughs, a junior college transfer from a year ago, is in the starting lineup and freshman Jared Bryant is now in the rotation as a center as well.

"That first game seems so long ago," Zlovaric said. "Even the Kentucky game [Dec. 17] seems like a long time ago."

In the games since the Mocs played in Rupp Arena, their post players have increased their production and played critical roles to help them beat Longwood and Utah Valley to claim the Dr Pepper Classic title.

"Those guys have gotten better and more confident," Shulman said. "We've almost got a set substitution pattern now that we were searching for."

Zlovaric, Burroughs, Mason and Bryant each averaged more points, rebounds and minutes per game during the Dr Pepper Classic than they averaged in the previous dozen games.

"My confidence level is up and I feel more comfortable, and game by game I feel better," Zlovaric said. "Our chemistry is on another level now. We have a better feeling for each other on the court now -- when to shoot, when to pass, when to throw it inside, when to throw it out -- we have a better feel for each other now."

The games against Longwood and Utah Valley were the two games against Division I competition that UTC played without senior Chris Early. He also missed the Kentucky contest and the Hiwassee game due to an indefinite suspension for posting harsh words on Twitter in November that were noticed on the trip to Lexington.

Early's suspension has provided more opportunity for UTC's other post players.

"The more reps you get, the more comfortable you get," said Burroughs, who averaged more than 20 minutes a game in the Dr Pepper Classic. "I've had more reps and I'm more comfortable."

Shulman said the improvement of the active post-player rotation will not have an impact on his decision about Early's future with the team, even though UTC is 3-1 without him and the loss came in a spirited effort at Kentucky.

"With crazy stuff that happens comes opportunity, and it's the old Wally Pipp deal," Shulman said, referring to the proverbial headache that got baseball's "Iron Horse," Lou Gehrig, into the New York Yankees' lineup in June 1925. "Another man's mistake is another man's opportunity. Both Z and Jahmal have taken advantage of it."

A decision about Early's future with the team likely will be made between the time UTC plays at Tennessee on Monday and against Western Carolina on Thursday.

But Shulman said the play of the current post rotation will not have an impact on his decision to reinstate Early.

"It doesn't impact the decision because that's not fair," Shulman said. "Chris is a human that made a mistake. He didn't kill somebody. Hopefully it's a correctable mistake. I have to worry about him Chris as a basketball player, but I also have to worry about him as a human being.

"This is not just a basketball decision. This is an everything decision. That's not fair because we're playing well now; that's not fair to Chris. We have to make a decision fair to Chris and fair to all parties involved."