UTC basketball freshmen proving their competitiveness

UTC basketball freshmen proving their competitiveness

October 19th, 2018 by Gene Henley in Sports - College

UTC's Jerry Johnson, shown dribbling during the first day of basketball practice last month, has been impressed with the attitude of his freshman teammates.

Photo by Erin O. Smith /Times Free Press.

One thing Lamont Paris likes about his second University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball team is the competitive nature the group has shown.

It didn't take long for the players to realize that character trait about themselves as well.

Back in June, after four freshmen, two junior college transfers and a graduate transfer had signed with UTC and everybody had moved in, the players put together a series of pickup games at "the Arc" on campus. The incoming freshmen — guards Maurice Commander and Donovann Toatley and forwards Kevin Easley and Keigan Kerby — went up against the returning players, with one of the bigs joining the freshman class, either senior Thomas Smallwood or sophomore Ramon Vila.

Redshirt freshmen Justin Brown and Duane Moss had not yet been cleared and did not play in the games.

UTC's David Jean-Baptiste, left, guards Jerry Johnson during a practice drill on Sept. 25.

UTC's David Jean-Baptiste, left, guards Jerry Johnson during...

Photo by Erin O. Smith /Times Free Press.

The freshmen had been pretty vocal in a team group text about how they were the better team and how they weren't going to be afraid to pit their group against the older players. According to urban legend, the games got so competitive that people working out in the facility abandoned their workouts and came and watched.

A couple of UTC coaches, as well as some parents of the freshmen, were in attendance.

"It was the first day we had all played live with the new freshmen, the jucos and Tom (Smallwood)," Vila said. "They were really good games. There was so much intensity and the games were really competitive, but it was really good to get to know the new guys that day."

The teams played "about five games," with the freshmen winning one. The games had been pretty tame until junior Jerry Johnson hit a shot in the face of Toatley, adding "Welcome to college" after hitting the shot. The 5-foot-9 freshman responded with a shot of his own, but missed, and when Johnson chose to pass up an opportunity to shoot again — choosing to pass to an open David Jean-Baptiste, Toatley barked at him, "Where's your heat check?"

"I told him, 'I'm a college player. I make the right play,'" Johnson said.

"Where I'm from, I don't sit well with that, and I've never been one to back down," said Toatley, a Baltimore-area native. "Whether it's Michael Jordan, LeBron (James) or Jerry, I'm going to go back at you regardless, so that's when the heat of the battle started to happen."

But it also served as Toatley's "Welcome to college" moment.

"I didn't think anybody brought the same competitive level that I did," Toatley said. "Where every day I come out, I'm in the other guy's face talking. You're basically kicking his butt every day and letting him know about it.

"I thought I was the only one like that. For Jerry to be an upperclassman and have that moment, it was a breath of fresh air, because I finally had somebody to compete against on a regular basis and get the best out of him and him get the best out of me. The rest of the team sees that and it raises the level of play, which is also good because it makes practices a lot better."

The feeling-out process was supposed to take a little time, but Johnson said that day showed him as well as the other upperclassmen who had been around college basketball for a while that the freshmen were just as hungry as the older players, something that should bode well for a team with seven players who have never played in a Division I game before.

"That day showed me a lot," Johnson said. "We have a lot of young guys that aren't afraid of who they're going against or what your status is. They came in and proved they belong. It showed me they wanted to work to be better, to be good, as opposed to somebody who has been in college and knows the ropes.

"They are very persistent in trying to get better, and it makes me feel a whole lot better that I'm not going to have to spend a lot of time explaining things to younger players. They pick things up fast, and it's a blessing to be around. When I was a freshman, it took me a while to pick those things up."

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.