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Staff file photo by Robin Rudd / Ramon Vila, a UTC basketball player whose redshirt junior season ended prematurely due to the COVID-19 pandemic canceling invitational tournaments, is from Barcelona. While he is still in Chattanooga, he thinks often of his family in Spain, including his parents, both of them doctors.

Being more than 4,000 miles away from home is nothing new to Ramon Vila, but without basketball games to play or supervised workouts to attend, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga redshirt junior's mind often wanders to his family in Barcelona.

Spain, a country with more than 20,000 cases of coronavirus as of Thursday, is under a national lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic while Vila is riding the storm out in his apartment at UTC. He speaks to his parents and grandparents and has been reassured things are well. His parents, Robert Vila and Merce Soley, are doctors, a fact that hasn't stopped the son from giving safety advice.

"I told them not to get out of their apartment, all the little tips, but they already know," he said with a laugh. "They know how to take care of themselves, so I'm not that concerned."

Vila may be away from one family, but he still has a few members of his extended one around him every day. He and three other members of the Mocs men's basketball program — David Jean-Baptiste, Stefan Kenic and Matt Ryan — are riding out the pandemic in their UTC apartments.

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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / UTC's Matt Ryan, left, shoves teammate David Jean-Baptiste in celebration during a home basketball game in November 2019. Jean-Baptiste, who is from Miami, and Ryan, who is from New York state, are still in Chattanooga with the remainder of the season canceled and UTC set to hold online classes only for the rest of the semester.

Although the 2019-20 season came to a swift and early end, each is trying to stay in basketball shape to some degree and will take part in online classes when UTC begins them Monday for the rest of the spring semester. The university cannot supervise practices or training right now, so each of the four Mocs is taking time to utilize the program's basketball practice and training facility on Vine Street.

And, yes, they are practicing proper social distancing.

"I go shoot basketball at night, very late, so no one is there," said Vila, an All-Southern Conference honoree this season. "Fortunately, we have our practice facility open for us. Nobody will be there, so we can use it to stay in shape. We can do an hour each day to stay in shape. That's about all we can do."

The most popular way for the foursome to spend time is playing video games against each other online.

"'Call of Duty,'" Jean-Baptiste quickly replied when asked which game is preferred. "I'm 'Call of Duty' all day and night."

The junior from Miami is set to graduate this spring with a degree in sports management but will return to play his senior season while working on a graduate degree. He's keeping up with his family and hearing horror stories of teenagers, including some from UTC, who have invaded Florida for spring break pleasures.

"Everyone back home in Miami is doing well, and I've used this time to check up on friends back home that I haven't talked to in a while," Jean-Baptiste said. "It's crazy at spring break. I know a lot of people from up this way went down there, but I wasn't about to go."

UTC coach Lamont Paris admits the safety of his players, especially the ones not on campus, is constantly on his mind.

"You get really concerned about these guys," he said. "You hope the ones at home are being supervised by their parents, but you worry a lot about them. I turn on the TV and there are kids going on spring break, for crying out loud. You're always concerned about them, but something like this happens and they are constantly on your mind.

"It's the first thing I'm thinking about when I wake up."

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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Chattanooga Mocs forward Ramon Vila (15) shoots the ball during UTC's 64-80 loss against ETSU at home on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

One subject that hasn't been brought up much is the way the 2019-20 season ended for the Mocs, who lost a late lead to Wofford in the SoCon tournament's semifinal round. UTC was going to be invited to play in one of three invitational tournaments before all postseason play was canceled.

"I just got over that game," Jean-Baptiste said. "It was a tough way to go out, but dude (Wofford's Storm Murphy) made a great play at the end. We don't talk about it a lot."

There is, however, much talk about next season. A team that went from losing 20 games in 2018-19 to winning 20 this past season is set to bring back a strong nucleus.

What will it take to make another jump in success next year?

"For us, it just takes everybody to keep buying in to the system," Jean-Baptiste said. "Understanding that we were good this past season but there is a lot more work to be done. We have to have a mindset that we have a lot more we can do and that we have to keep pushing each other towards getting more wins and a conference championship."

 

Exit plan

UTC center Justin Brown announced via social media Friday that he is seeking to transfer. The 6-foot-10, 205-pound redshirt sophomore averaged 1.5 points and 1.6 rebounds in just more than six minutes per game while playing in 22 this past season.

The Chicago native posted Friday: "While it has been a wonderful three years in Chattanooga, I've decided to explore my options elsewhere. The ups and downs I've had at UTC definitely have shaped me in the most positive way possible."

Brown is set to graduate this summer, making him immediately eligible for two more seasons.

Contact Lindsey Young at lyoung@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6296. Follow him on Twitter @youngsports22.

 

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