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Mercer's Phillip Leonard, left, passes to Stephon Jelks over the full-court defense of UTC's Chuck Ester (0) and Greg Pryor (1) as the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga hosts Mercer in a men's basketball game on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016, in Chattanooga, Tenn. UTC won by a score of 74-62.
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UTC junior forward Chuck Ester and the Mocs will take on Indiana in the opening round of the NCAA tournament tonight in Des Moines, Iowa. The Mocs are going for their 30th win of the season as they try to secure the program's first NCAA tournament victory since 1997. They lost their opening game in 2005 and 2009.

DES MOINES, Iowa — Above the surface, there's talk about what many people want for Saturday's NCAA tournament game at Wells Fargo Arena: a matchup between men's basketball blue bloods Indiana and Kentucky with a spot in the Sweet 16 on the line.

Meanwhile, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga quietly lurks — eager for an opportunity to crush those dreams, eager for the chance to show that the team's 29-win season (with four victories against opponents in the top 100 of the Ratings Percentage Index) is no fluke.

That opportunity comes tonight.

The Mocs (29-5), the No. 12 seed in the East Region, will face fifth-seeded Indiana (25-7) at 7:10 EDT in the tournament's opening round, with the game shown on CBS. The winner faces the winner of No. 13 seed Stony Brook (26-6) and the fourth-seeded Wildcats (26-8), who play tonight's late game at the same site.

Indiana is led by point guard Yogi Ferrell, a first-team All-Big 10 selection and second-team All-American. The Hoosiers also have depth inside and typically surround Ferrell with a number of shooters.

UTC coach Matt McCall said the biggest key entering this week was making sure the normal plan doesn't change.

"We have to make sure we play our best," McCall said. "If all of a sudden I start panicking or start changing things we're doing with the team, our team is going to think that I don't think we can win the game.

"We're 29-5 with some big wins this year, so we need to do what's gotten us to 29-5. Our team needs to understand that. They need to know that I believe they can win the game. If all of a sudden we start changing things because it's the NCAA tournament, I think it sends the wrong message to the team."

Most, if not all experts, have picked Indiana to win comfortably. Vegas oddsmakers have the Hoosiers winning by 12, which is perfectly fine by the Mocs, who have played most of this season with a collective chip on their shoulder. It was one they maintained despite being the preseason favorite to win the Southern Conference — they considered Wofford the favorite because the Terriers had won back-to-back SoCon titles.

They carried that chip while winning at Georgia and Dayton. They still had it when they outlasted Illinois 81-77 in a neutral-site win that wasn't that neutral, with the game in Springfield, Ill.

Not everybody, though, is overlooking the Mocs. Some coaches have taken notice of UTC's success, especially in the nonconference schedule.

"Chattanooga is in our corner of the world, and the job that was done by that team this year — wow! — they're really good," Kentucky coach John Calipari said in the Southeastern Conference teleconference on Monday. "They won at Dayton, and no one wins at Dayton."

"They're really good."

Yet, this team feels as though it has been the underdog all season. So why should today be any different?

"Indiana is a great team. They always have been, but we'll be ready to take on the opportunity," UTC forward Chuck Ester said this week. "There are some really good teams in this regional, and they don't believe in us and don't believe we can do it, so we have to show up and show them what we can do."

Possibly nobody embodies that mentality more than Greg Pryor. The underrecruited junior point guard from Memphis has always had the type of mentality someone who felt he was better than his recruiting ranking or scholarship offers would suggest, and he has played with that sort of chip on his shoulder indicative of a team that wants more credit than has been given.

"I've always been under the radar," Pryor said. "I've always been dealt the lesser hand, but I've felt comfortable in that. It builds the fire in me. I'm comfortable that way. I like to be in that position, because I always want people to think less of me. I listen to what other people have to say, and I prove them wrong every time."

That's the type of mentality the Mocs have had all season.

The games at Georgia and Dayton? They weren't supposed to win.

The game against Illinois? Supposed to be a loss as well.

And after five consecutive seasons of dropping their first game in the conference tournament, it's likely some expected that trend to continue despite their top seed after winning the regular-season SoCon title.

But the Mocs have absorbed every challenge and proven a lot of people wrong.

"Chattanooga is under the radar as far as a basketball program," Pryor said. "We know it's going to be a hard-fought game, and we're coming ready to play for 40 minutes."

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

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