When Lamont Paris was hired as the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball coach in April 2017, the Mocs had a lot of players returning from the previous season.
The problem was that those players had no collegiate experience.
With six seniors exiting after the 2016-17 season, a 19-12 campaign for the Mocs, what Paris inherited initially was a roster with six freshmen, two sophomores and three juniors, although the coach added senior Joshua Phillips — who had played three years at Middle Tennessee State before transferring to UTC to play football — during his first season.
The transfer game has become part of the Mocs' routine under Paris, with his tenure including 15 players transferring out — that number doesn't account for forwards Makinde London and Ramon Vila, who pursued professional careers despite having college eligibility remaining — and 11 players transferring in.
In three seasons under Paris, the Mocs have gone 10-23, 12-20 and 20-13, and the revolving door on the roster has made it hard each year to gauge how good UTC could be until tipoff time.
The 2020-21 season will be no different, with four players having left since last March and five players set to debut in a UTC uniform, a number that doesn't take into consideration transfers Darius Banks (James Madison) and KC Hankton (Saint Louis), who are expected to sit out per NCAA rules.
What might be lost in those numbers and a sea of new faces is the fact that the Mocs return eight letter winners — the most since nine players returned for the 2015-16 season, which was also the last time UTC won a Southern Conference title. The difference is that team was led by four returning starters, while this season's Mocs returns just one, fifth-year senior David Jean-Baptiste, who was a preseason All-SoCon selection.
"We've got a lot of new faces, so no one is going to know much about our guys," Paris said recently, "but we've got a good group of guys that have been in our program before, and so we feel comfortable about that."
Three of the five players set to make their UTC debuts were in Chattanooga last season but sat out the 2019-20 schedule: forward Jade Frazier and guards Malachi Smith and Jamaal Walker (6-foot-5, 185 pounds), a former East Hamilton High School standout. Smith did so as a transfer after earning Horizon League all-freshman honors at Wright State in 2018-19, while Frazier and Walker redshirted as freshmen. The other two new Mocs expected to debut, forwards Josh Ayeni and Mark Tikhonenko, have been productive in college.
With the season and home opener set for next Saturday against Northern Kentucky at McKenzie Arena, the Times Free Press looks at five questions entering the 2020-21 season:
What is this team's strength?
The Mocs have improved each year under Paris, getting better offensively, better defensively and, as a result, better in terms of record. Last season's team was one of the most efficient on offense since Paris arrived, but it was the Mocs' best defensive team in his tenure. The thought around the program is that UTC will continue its improvement on the defensive end while trying to figure out the offensive end. Jean-Baptiste (6-1, 193), Smith (6-4, 205) and Trey Doomes (6-3, 171) are long and athletic with the ability to disrupt opposing offenses, and redshirt junior guard A.J. Caldwell (6-5, 200) was one of the team's best defenders in 2019-20. Looking inside, Ayeni (6-7, 209), Frazier (6-9, 215) and Stefan Kenic (6-0, 223) — along with sophomore Prosper Obidiebube (6-8, 208) — can provide a versatility that will allow them to defend some perimeter opponents while also handling things on the interior.
What's the rotation?
It's safe to say Jean-Baptiste and Smith will man two of the starting positions. The Mocs probably need Kenic to continue to develop as a stretch-4 after shooting 40% from 3-point range last season, although Ayeni and Tikhonenko (6-9, 238) provide intriguing options due to their skills, Tikhonenko as a tall shooter and Ayeni as more of an inside banger. Two of those three will likely be in the starting lineup, but all three will play. The question comes in the final starting spot, where juniors Caldwell or Doomes or sophomore Grant Ledford (6-5, 208) will need to step up. Caldwell has been the most productive, but regardless of who starts, all three will play and each provides additional ball handling in an era of more positionless basketball.
Is the roster done?
That's an interesting question. It was only last fall that Kenic had transferred from Cleveland (Ohio) State and was awaiting NCAA clearance for a waiver that would make him eligible immediately. That waiver wasn't approved until Nov. 27. The Mocs have already received a waiver for Tikhonenko to play this season, but then there's the question of Darius Banks (6-6, 218), who played three seasons at James Madison University and scored 1,069 points in 93 games (89 starts). If UTC does receive a waiver for him, he would immediately infuse a high level of energy and would play well as an athletic inside-out presence who could provide mismatches at power forward.
What about the virus?
After the COVID-19 pandemic shut down college basketball's postseason without an NCAA tournament this past March, everyone is aware of how fragile the situation can be for sports. It's probable that some UTC games will be postponed or canceled this season. The Mocs have already lost two games on their revised 2020-21 schedule — what was to be the season opener against Bellarmine this coming Wednesday and a Dec. 12 date against NAIA program Cumberland — and if the goal is to make it to the finish line, flexibility will be the key to getting through the season. On Friday, Lander University, a Division II program in Greenwood, South Carolina, posted a release on its athletic department's website announcing the Bearcats had dropped a game against the University of South Carolina Aiken to instead open their season this Wednesday at UTC, though the Mocs have made no such announcement. The Bearcats are coached by Omar Wattad, a two-time All-SoCon selection when he played at UTC. One announcement UTC did make this past week was that spectators would not be permitted for basketball games — men's or women's — before January 2021. Fans, like the Mocs, will have to be flexible, too.
What are the expectations?
It's year four of the Paris era and the Mocs are coming off a 20-win season, but realistically it's going to be difficult to replicate that in 2020-21. First, there are two fewer regular-season games this season due to a schedule condensed as a result of COVID-19. Second, the SoCon is one of the toughest mid-major conferences in the country, and winning 10 games this season will be difficult against the likes of Furman, UNC Greensboro, East Tennessee State, Mercer, Wofford and Western Carolina — all teams predicted to finish ahead of the Mocs. UTC or one of those teams could win 17 or 18 regular-season games and still finish seventh. Of course, Wofford occupied that spot in the final regular-season standings last season but managed to reach the conference championship game. UTC may start slow due to a lot of new players trying to take on bigger roles and some new Mocs getting their feet wet, but this is going to be a tough team to beat once conference play begins.