KNOXVILLE — The Tennessee Volunteers will host the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocs on Nov. 25 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
It will be a matchup of two college basketball programs with a connection that goes beyond being part of the UT system.
It's possible — if not likely — that both teams will be missing a player who could have helped out this season. The Vols announced on Nov. 2 that the NCAA had denied a waiver — as well as a subsequent appeal — that would have granted immediate eligibility to Uros Plavsic, a 7-foot-1, 240-pound transfer from Arizona State.
The Mocs are in a similar bind. Stefan Kenic, a 6-foot-9, 230-pound transfer from Cleveland (Ohio) State has yet to be cleared by the NCAA for this season and will have to sit out until — or unless — that happens. He has two seasons of eligibility remaining, while Plavsic has three.
Both players are from Serbia. Each came to the United States with hopes of furthering his basketball career while obtaining an American education. While the latter is happening, the former — while still possible — is on hold.
The Vols started their season with a 78-63 win over UNC Asheville in Knoxville on Tuesday, the same night the Mocs fell 79-68 at Eastern Kentucky. UTC is now 1-1 after Saturday's home win against Tennessee State.
Each player was brought to the country by Drazen Zlovaric, a basketball coach who is also Serbian and was most recently an assistant at Arizona State.
So what happened?
On Oct. 24, 2017, a picture welcoming Plavsic was posted to the Twitter account for the basketball program at Chattanooga's Hamilton Heights Christian Academy.
Two days later, he had committed to Cleveland State — where Zlovaric was in his first year as an assistant to Dennis Felton — despite not having visited the Ohio school.
Plavsic played in every game for the Hawks during their 2017-18 schedule, though he came off the bench for much of the season as he struggled to learn the team's offense and dealt with a language barrier.
After averaging 9.6 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, he decommitted from Cleveland State on March 30, 2018. Multiple sources have told the Times Free Press that Zlovaric had a job lined up at Georgia Tech and that he planned to bring Plavsic along to Atlanta but that it all fell through once Cleveland State coach Dennis Felton — who was the head coach from 2003 to '09 at Georgia, where Zlovaric was one of his players — found out what was happening.
Two weeks later, Plavsic was linked to Arizona State, committing in April and signing a couple of weeks later.
In June 2018, Zlovaric was linked to an opening with the Sun Devils; the move became official in September, although it was never formally announced by Arizona State.
Plavsic redshirted for the Sun Devils in 2018-19. On April 20, Arizona State announced it would not retain Zlovaric as an assistant coach; three days later, Plavsic announced his intention to transfer.
Two weeks later, Plavsic said he would join the Vols, a move that would put him closer to Hamilton Heights coach Zach Ferrell and his wife Rachel, his host family in the United States.
"It's been a long process," Plavsic told the Times Free Press on Oct. 11. "Everything was happening so quick and I wasn't ready for it, but when I decommitted from Cleveland State and reopened my recruiting, things went all the way up. I committed to Arizona State, and during my redshirt year I tried to make myself better, but at the end of the year I had long talks with Zach and Rachel about what I should do and what the best move for me was.
"I felt like I needed a fresh start, a fresh beginning and a change of environment."
Multiple sources have told the Times Free Press that Zlovaric handled every aspect of Plavsic's recruiting after he arrived in the United States — to the point that Plavsic never had a clue where he was going to school.
Who is Zlovaric?
Zlovaric came to the United States in 2006 from Serbia, playing basketball at Tennessee's Cleveland High School for his junior year and averaging 21.3 points and 11 rebounds per game before moving on to Patterson Prep in North Carolina due to Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association rules involving exchange students.
The 6-foot-9 Zlovaric averaged 14 points and eight rebounds per game and helped the North Carolina program to a No. 1 ranking in the country and a 35-0 record while quickly shooting up recruiting ladders by showing some ball-handling and shooting abilities. Zlovaric ultimately chose the Georgia Bulldogs over offers from Texas — coached at the time by Rick Barnes, who is now in his fifth season leading the Vols — Arkansas, Florida and Maryland. He spent two seasons in Athens before transferring to UTC, where he averaged 9.2 points and 5.5 rebounds per game over his final two college seasons.
He played two professional seasons back in Europe before joining Barnes' first staff at Tennessee as a graduate assistant. After two seasons with the Vols, Zlovaric joined Cleveland State's staff as an assistant under Felton, reuniting with his former head coach in a move announced May 9, 2017.
Said Felton in a school release announcing his first staff: "We plan for international recruiting to be a significant part of our efforts at CSU, and there is no one in the country better networked abroad than Drazen."
Threee weeks later, Zlovaric and the Vikings signed Kenic, who in two seasons at Cleveland State averaged 9.3 points and shot 35% from 3-point range before transferring to UTC.
Zlovaric did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story, but in a February 2018 conversation with the Times Free Press, he said people considered him the "best and most connected international recruiter in the NCAA."
"International recruiting is a whole different animal," Zlovaric said that day. "You're fighting all types of people trying to influence them not to go to college, but a lot of 17-to-19-year-olds are not ready for professional basketball. You can't go to school while you're playing (professionally), and what I'm trying to do is help give these kids an opportunity.
"People trust me; they know what I'm about. They know me. I don't know many that have the same connections."
He also noted he was going to "bring players from Europe to the NCAA that no one else before could."
"I have been creating the trend and hype among the best European players that their next step should be college, and I will succeed in my vision of all of the best players from the rest of the world can play NCAA basketball," Zlovaric said.
A third Serbian player Zlovaric brought to the country and Cleveland State, 6-9, 215-pound forward Aleksa Popovic, transferred to Division II program McKendree in Lebanon, Illiinois, so he was eligible immediately.
Who's to blame?
Kenic was part of a wave of transfers from Cleveland State in the offseason, and athletic director Scott Garrett announced in a July 12 release that Felton and his entire staff had been "relieved of their duties."
"We take our mission to provide CSU student-athletes with a transformational experience very seriously. Our coaches operate with the expectation that they should build a culture supportive of our student-athletes in the classroom, accountable for their conduct as representatives of the University, and for their performance on the court," Garrett was quoted in the release. "We will seek a new leader for our program who can deliver on this commitment."
A report that day from CBS TV station Cleveland 19 mentioned allegations that Felton was not popular with his players at least in part due to how he ran practices.
A source close to the situation has told the Times Free Press that UTC has filed an appeal based on findings that those practices led to players being injured but that while Garrett agreed "stuff was occurring" — which led to Felton being fired — he did not support any waivers.
"They (the NCAA) know what's going on at Cleveland State," the source said.
Nine Cleveland State players put their names in the NCAA transfer portal either prior to Felton being fired or immediately afterward. Two of those players — Jaalam Hill and Deante Johnson — wound up staying at Cleveland State, which hired former Florida State assistant Dennis Gates in late July. Two more — Seth Millner (Northwest Florida State Junior College) and Popovic — are eligible this season because they transferred to programs that are not in Division I.
Four players, including Kenic, have either been denied immediate eligibility by the NCAA or have not been cleared; a fifth, guard Tyree Appleby, transferred to Florida and didn't apply for immediate eligibility.
It's unclear what Arizona State's role has been. Some sources suggested to the Times Free Press that the Sun Devils have no problem with Plavsic being eligible immediately, while others have said they have sought to keep that from happening.
Barnes recently hinted at the possibility that Arizona State has not been cooperative.
"The first school has a lot to do with it. The first school can have a lot if they want to, if they say how things went and exited," the Vols coach said on Nov. 4. "It's real simple out there. If the school, when someone leaves, simply says there was not a spot on the roster (at the first school), that person is going to be deemed automatically eligible at the next place he goes. Then you get into the part where people say, 'Does that mean you're running guys off?' That's not necessarily the same thing. The ones that I know that have been able to get cleared immediately, (it's) where the school they're leaving from fully cooperates to get that person eligible. I think in situations that we've been involved in, I felt like it was important that that person gets a chance to go and play right away, because I'm not sure sitting out helps anybody."
Or was it Zlovaric?
There's more uncertainty there as well, as a source suggested to the Times Free Press that the instability Plavsic has dealt with since entering the country — having committed to multiple schools along the way — has played a factor. Considering Zlovaric was considered a handler for the player, that might not absolve the coach of blame.
In any case, when the Vols and Mocs meet on Nov. 25 in Knoxville, there may be a meeting between Kenic and Plavsic — but it probably won't be them facing off in the game.