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At some point, Lamont Paris's fourth season as University of Tennessee at Chattanooga head coach will come to a close.

No fewer than 18 scheduled games remain, 19 if you count at least one game in the Southern Conference tournament.

It's not a surprise that when asked about how his latest team has gotten off to a 9-0 start — the best in UTC's history — Paris and players alike refer to toughness.

"We all play together," freshman guard/forward Jamaal Walker said after the Mocs' most impressive win of the year, a 69-66 road victory over Alabama-Birmingham on Dec. 19. "We don't care about who scores, we don't care about who scores the most, we just care about winning, holding each other accountable, and trying to do the best for your team at all times."

Toughness and togetherness are traits that can't always be identified in recruiting. Talent? Usually obvious to the trained eye. Athleticism? Typically the same.

There was plenty of athleticism in Paris' first season. The talent started to come his second, and experience trickled in in year three.

But consistency on the roster is something that hasn't happened. A total of 16 players have transferred out of the program, and only two players lasted at least three seasons: current junior guard A.J. Caldwell and senior David Jean-Baptiste, who just recently put his name in the transfer portal.

In a May conversation with the Times Free Press, Paris called some of the previous seasons' losses "addition by subtraction."

"And that doesn't always mean his talent," Paris said. "In fact, oftentimes it doesn't just mean pure talent. What are you like as a teammate? What are you doing to inspire someone? And then, sometimes it is more talent-based, but normally it's not. I think we've made some strategic moves. We've also had some moves that were initiated by the player and that we didn't ask to happen.

"I think we've continued to get guys that are more committed to winning basketball games. We've added more guys that are committed to having priority number one be winning a basketball game, whatever that means for them."

And to his point, the program hasn't taken a step back despite the roster overhauls. The Mocs won 10 games in Paris' first season, followed by 12 a year later and 20 last season, the first such win total for the program since the 2015-16 team won 29 games and advanced to the NCAA tournament.

This season's start is equal parts impressive and improbable, especially when one realizes the Mocs have yet to play more than 10 players in a game. It's not due to tight rotations; it's that there aren't many bodies available. In addition to the loss of Jean-Baptiste, sophomore guard Grant Ledford has been out with an injury and junior forward Mark Tikhonenko has been out for personal reasons for a month.

Paris is currently employing a seven-man rotation, with Caldwell, Walker and sophomore guard Malachi Smith each playing at least 35 minutes a game in the past four contests. Senior forward Stefan Kenic is also over 30 minutes, while senior forward Josh Ayeni, junior guard Trey Doomes and junior forward K.C. Hankton — who only became eligible on Dec. 16 — rounding out the group.

It's hard to believe that the current situation is sustainable. Aside from the seven aforementioned names, sophomore Prosper Obidiebube and freshman Jaden Frazier are the only other available bodies. Soon, Ledford will be back. Maybe Tikhonenko can return. Perhaps the most intriguing player out — senior forward Darius Banks, a transfer from James Madison who has been sitting out the season — will decide to give it a shot in conference play.

The Mocs are currently No. 74 in the country in Ratings Percentage Index, one of the many measurements used to judge how good a team is. They even got a vote in the most recent Associated Press top 25, ranking them 44th overall in the country. The schedule hasn't been difficult to date, something that changes Wednesday as UTC hosts preseason SoCon favorite Furman at 1 at McKenzie Arena.

This roster — limited as it may be — feels it has a chance in every game played.

"At the end of the day, you've got to lace your shoes up the same way we do," said Smith, the 6-foot-4 guard who is averaging 19.8 points, 11.3 points and 3.0 assists in the four games since Jean-Baptiste's departure. "We're just going to go out there, play with confidence and play together. During the week we're practicing hard and taking care of our bodies off the court.

"We know we can be special and we're not going to let the fact that we have eight players stop that."

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

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