EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third of a three-part series dissecting the 2019-20 UTC men's basketball team. Today we'll break down the big men after previously looking at the playmakers (see here) and the shooters (see here). We will preview the UTC women beginning Monday.
Ask Ramon Vila the biggest reason for fans of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball team to be excited this year, and he doesn't mention the Mocs' influx of talent, their added depth or even the experience earned during a sometimes difficult 2018-19 season they finished 12-20.
Vila, a 6-foot-8, 242-pound Spaniard who endured himself to UTC fans a year ago with his physical style of play, instead uses words such as "family," "friends" and "caring" when discussing the 2019-20 Mocs.
"The main difference this year is our players actually care about each other," the redshirt junior said. "We feel like a family and we have the same goals. Everyone knows his role, which is very important to our success.
"Last year we didn't have much communication between players, but this year we are super close. We hang out every day and we're all super friends. If something doesn't work out on the court, we can actually get together and talk about it."
Ask coach Lamont Paris to name a key for improved success, though, and surprisingly the word "selfish" comes out. Specifically, he wants his starting post to call his own number a bit more this year.
"Ramon is a unique player," Paris said. "His skill level is extremely high as far as his touch around the basket and some of the moves he makes and body control. He's extremely unselfish — probably a bit too unselfish at times. There are times he gets the ball on the block and I'm like, that's a Ramon Vila moment and you've got to take advantage of that.
"Really, he's a great teammate who is coming into his own."
Vila is the team's returning leader in both scoring (10.2 points per game in 2018-19) and rebounds (5.2). He shot a team-best 62% from the field last season, lending credence to his coach's call for more attempts.
It's a role he's ready to accept.
"I think I will have a bigger role, but the big thing is I want to graduate with a ring," Villa said. "If I play five or 10 minutes less per game, I don't care because we have a better chance of winning. If I have to score more, I'm OK with that, too. We actually have a chance to win some things this year, so it's very exciting."
Part of Vila's excitement lies in his fellow big men. Rod Johnson is back after sitting out last season due to a medical redshirt and slated to start at the four spot. The 6-7, 200-pound junior, who had 11 points in last week's exhibition game, brings much-needed physicality to the position (he averaged six rebounds per game as a sophomore at Highland Community College in Freeport, Illinois), as well as a developing offensive game.
"Rod has the potential to affect the game in a lot of ways," Paris said. "I think he can guard multiple positions and, offensively, it's the same thing. He can do some things from the perimeter and he's a good passer. He's skilled with his back to the basket.
"He's like a Swiss Army knife, and we're still finding out what he can do. He's a very important part of what we want to do."
Unlike a year ago, the Mocs show ample depth inside. Redshirt sophomore Justin Brown (6-10, 205) returns with added muscle after averaging 2.5 points and 2.5 rebounds in 11 minutes per game, and Paris said Brown has a path to more playing time.
"Justin has come a long way in a lot of different ways," Paris said. "He was in the office the other day, and I talked to him about having a consistent motor. Sporadically it's really good, but improving yourself physically to have the strength and endurance to do it for the five consecutive minutes you're on the floor is a big deal.
"Compared to the Justin Brown who came in here two years ago, it's a drastic difference."
A pair of freshmen, Jaden Frazier (6-10, 210) and Prosper Obidiebube (6-8, 205), have the opportunity to earn time in the playing rotation. To help them get there, they have a willing mentor.
"This is my third year playing (college basketball), so I do find myself teaching more, especially with the freshmen," said Vila, who played in 33 games his freshman year at Arizona State in 2016-17. "Those guys are coming in from high school, which is nothing like what they are going to see, so I'm telling them to be tougher, be more physical. Those guys are going to be great for us, and I want to do anything I can to help them."
UTC is awaiting word on the availability of forward Stefan Kenic (6-9,230). The Cleveland State (Ohio) transfer, a junior from Serbia, would immediately be a part of the rotation, but the NCAA has not ruled on his eligibility.
The Mocs open the season Tuesday at Eastern Kentucky with a 7 p.m. tipoff. Their home opener is Nov. 9 against Tennessee State, a 4:30 p.m. game.