To see just how far the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's men's basketball program has come in three-plus years with Lamont Paris as head coach, look no further than Wednesday's result at McKenzie Arena.
The Mocs' 99-63 victory over NCAA Division II member Lander to open the 2020-21 season won't exactly be considered a quality win for a D-I school, but it was only November 2017 when the first UTC team under Paris lost an exhibition 68-63 to Francis Marion — like Lander, a D-II program from South Carolina.
"I remember that game showed me that it doesn't matter who you're playing, you have to come in and play your best game," said UTC fifth-year senior David Jean-Baptiste, who led the Mocs with 19 points Wednesday against the Bearcats of Greenwood.
Jean-Baptiste would know. The lone holdover from the 2017-18 team that finished 10-23 — Paris has since led the Mocs to marks of 12-20 in 2018-19 and 20-13 with a Southern Conference tournament semifinals appearance last season — Jean-Baptiste played 14 minutes and didn't score in the five-point loss to Francis Marion. The Mocs turned the ball over 22 times and had only five assists that day as they struggled to figure out how to play under a coach hired months earlier.
Despite another offseason shakeup of the roster due to transfers in and out, that certainly wasn't the case against the Bearcats. The Mocs scored the first 10 points of the game, and after a pair of Malachi Smith free throws, they never led by less than double digits.
The Mocs' next scheduled game is also at home, against Northern Kentucky at 2 p.m. Saturday.
Much like that 2017 matchup, Wednesday was a game the Mocs were supposed to control, supposed to dominate, and not only did they do that on the scoreboard, they did it in every facet.
They defended well, despite being put in some mismatches against a team coached by former UTC and SoCon standout Omar Wattad, whose tallest starter was 6-foot-6. They dominated the boards by a 52-28 advantage. Fifteen assists led to 37 made baskets and 13 3-pointers, and UTC forced 17 Lander turnovers and turned those into 27 points.
The Mocs' trio of guards — Jean-Baptiste, Smith (18 points, 10 rebounds, five assists) and A.J. Caldwell (nine points, eight rebounds, five assists) — controlled the tempo. Everybody who played off them benefited, with Stefan Kenic scoring 11 points, Josh Ayeni 10 and everyone else who appeared in the game for UTC accounting for at least five.
Having built a 20-game winner by his third season, Paris knows what he wants on the court. It looked a lot more like Wednesday and a lot less than that first game three years ago.
"I think we have a much better product than what we had when I got here," he said. "I'm probably better as a coach — if I'm not, then I'm doing something wrong. I'm not a guy that pretends he invented basketball, and I want to be a lifelong learner and improver, so I evaluate myself on a daily basis and think we've come a long way in a lot of facets. As a culture, we've grown tremendously, and it would be hard for me to try to put a quantity on how much we've improved in that regard.
"I"m just proud of what they've done and where we've come. It hasn't been an easy road, and this is only one game, but the things I evaluate when I talk about growth have less to do with basketball and more to do with every facet of life."