A lot has changed during Casey Jones' time at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
During the 2012-13 season — Jones' first with the basketball program — the largest crowd the team played in front of at McKenzie Arena was 4,487 against the College of Charleston, a team no longer in the Southern Conference.
That UTC team ended up 13-19 overall, but when the Mocs (19-7, 10-4) host East Tennessee State (21-6, 11-3) this afternoon at 5, there is a lot on the line.
"It's a big turnaround from my freshman year," Jones said Friday. "We've been winning games. We had a big (10-game) winning streak my sophomore year with (former coach) Will Wade, and the fans started coming out, and ever since it's been up-and-up."
The two teams are still within striking distance of league-leading Furman, which is 12-2 heading into today's game against UNC Greensboro. UNCG is tied with UTC at 10-4, but the only game the Mocs are concerning themselves with is the game before them. ETSU won 76-71 in the teams' Johnson City meeting on Jan. 28.
The Buccaneers dominated the glass that afternoon, outrebounding the Mocs 43-28 with 14 offensive rebounds. By UTC coach Matt McCall's count, the Bucs scored 36 points off turnovers and second-chance opportunities. Even with that, it was a two-point game with three minutes to play, so the Mocs feel that with some fine-tuning, they'll be in good shape today.
"Who knows? Maybe the outcome would have been different," McCall said. "They do a good job with how athletic they are. They jump up, deny, pressure guards and make it hard to get open, so we've got to be able to handle that and not put our guys on an island to try to make plays off the bounce.
"We have to make sure we're handling denials and pressures the right way."
The Mocs had four crowds in 2013-14 larger than the College of Charleston crowd a season earlier, including one of 6,648 against UNCG. That could be similar to today's crowd, as more than 4,000 tickets had been sold by Friday with plenty more expected to be in attendance for a game against a rival with so much on the line.
The Mocs' biggest goal — at least for the five-player senior class — was to rebuild the magic that was created in the 1990s when UTC continually was competing for SoCon titles and NCAA tournament berths. They got those again last season.
"When I first got here, I just heard about the history," said senior center Justin Tuoyo, who transferred from Virginia Commonwealth. "I didn't know much about Chattanooga. I was hearing about how the program was, and since I've been here we've been trying to rebuild that. I wouldn't say it's back to the '90s, but winning as much as they had and hearing fans talk about how excited they were for the games, it feels good to go out there and play.
"I don't want to say it's back, but I feel we brought something back to the city of Chattanooga."
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @genehenleytfp.