For both University of Tennessee at Chattanooga basketball teams, this season has had more ups and downs than the famous Cannonball roller coaster at Lake Winnie.
The UTC men (16-10, 7-6 Southern Conference) have lost twice to Western Carolina, but the Mocs also swept their season series with 2019 SoCon champion Wofford. The home loss to the Catamounts three games ago put coach Lamont Paris's squad under .500 in conference play and closer to earning a bottom-four seed for next month's league tournament than one in the top half.
Katie Burrows' women (7-17, 6-4), after winning one nonconference game in a nightmarish start to the season, regrouped when SoCon play started, though consistency has been a problem for UTC. The Mocs have losses to Mercer and Western Carolina, which have a combined 3-13 league record in other games. However, there are also impressive wins over Wofford and UNC Greensboro and two against Furman — three teams with a combined 18-7 mark against other SoCon foes.
It has been, to borrow a little something from Forrest Gump, one big box of chocolates.
The big thing is, warts and all, both UTC teams enter the final two weeks of the regular season in enviable positions in the SoCon standings due to recent good work.
The men, at 7-6, are tied with Western Carolina and Mercer for fifth place. The Mocs need to finish ahead of the Catamounts, who own the tiebreaker due to the sweep, to secure that spot, but the good news for UTC is it hosts Mercer next week, when a win would complete a season sweep of the Bears. Fourth-place Wofford is a game ahead, but UTC's sweep of the Terriers would prove valuable if the Mocs catch them.
The Terriers still have games with East Tennessee State University and Furman, which are tied for first place at 11-2 in league play, as well as Saturday's matchup against the Catamounts. So there is a legitimate shot for the Mocs to finish fourth, especially considering they still have very winnable games remaining at Virginia Military Institute and The Citadel, which have a combined league record of 2-24.
Paris is trying not to look ahead, as he said after Wednesday's rout of VMI, but he can't ignore how crucial these next two weeks will be.
"I mentioned it to the guys even before the game, and I don't look too much down the road and we take it on a game-by-game basis, but there's no denying that it is February 12 right now," he said. "We have five games down the stretch and have a conference tournament that everyone gets invited to.
"You definitely don't want to shy away from the concept of doing certain things that will allow you to be playing really well heading into the conference tournament. Say you won three of the last four, four of the last five, however that far you can dig back, that's the last memory you want to have going into that conference tournament so you have true confidence heading there."
The UTC women, at 6-4, are in even better shape. Burrows' team is one game behind first-place Wofford (7-3) and one game in the loss column behind UNCG and Samford. The Mocs are essentially two games up on Furman (5-5) and have the wins over UNCG and Wofford.
Even if the Mocs lose Saturday at Wofford, wins in their final three games — all at home — over Mercer (UTC is seeking a split after an ugly road loss in January), Samford and ETSU would leave them seeded no worse than third for next month's SoCon tournament. Considering Wofford still has to play UNCG and Furman, and UNCG has Wofford, Furman and Samford left, anything could happen where UTC's upward mobility is concerned — but only if the Mocs find some consistency.
"You can't take breaks. You can't take a single second off," Burrows said after the shocking home loss to Western Carolina. "We just have to reevaluate our hearts and our minds, and are we going to make a stride in these last five games?"
The former UTC player and assistant got the answer she wanted with the impressive win at Furman, just as Paris did when his Mocs beat Wofford and VMI in the past week.
The stretch run has begun, but will the UTC hoops roller coaster continue to climb or plummet to the earth?