For the first time since taking over as University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball coach four years ago, Lamont Paris entered an April signing period without the burden of having a lot of spots to fill.
Consider his past springs with the Mocs when it came to roster management:
* When the former Wisconsin assistant replaced Matt McCall, who had left after two seasons at UTC for the University of Massachusetts, Paris inherited a roster losing six seniors from a 19-win team — and then promptly lost three players to transfers and all four commitments in a talented recruiting class.
* After his first season, which yielded a 10-23 record and ended in the Southern Conference tournament quarterfinals, the Mocs lost Joshua Phillips to graduation, five players to transfer and another, junior Makinde London, who went pro.
* His second season was slightly better from a record standpoint (12-20), but five players transferred out and Thomas Smallwood graduated.
* The record improved substantially in the 2019-20 season (20-13). This time, only three players transferred out, while two others graduated and forward Ramon Vila went pro.
But now, going into what will be his fifth season in 2021-22, the roster is expected to look similar to how it did this past season, when the Mocs were a trendy pick to win the SoCon title going into the league tournament — before the absence of two starters against East Tennessee State due to COVID-19 protocol proved too much to overcome as an 18-8 season wrapped up with a loss.
Two players — guard Trey Doomes and forward Prosper Obidiebube — are in the NCAA transfer portal. UTC recently announced that forward Stefan Kenic will pursue professional opportunities. But the nucleus is expected to return, especially if sophomore guard Malachi Smith, an All-SoCon selection, takes his name out of NBA draft consideration.
"I anticipate we'll have a better year next year, a better team," Paris said while noting the Mocs lost four players from the previous season but improved their record, with a .692 winning percentage in 2020-21 compared to .606 in 2019-20.
"That's what you're always trying to do — by way of addition or subtraction — is to make your team better. I think we've done that every single year, and I anticipate that we'll do the same thing again next year. But having said that, it is nice to have a bigger core than we've ever had that we'll be returning — knock on wood. It's going to be a huge thing in terms of guys knowing the culture of what we do and familiar with how we operate in terminology and what our expectations are in and out of the weight room, on campus as students, as human beings."
The Mocs have a commitment from 6-foot-6 forward and three-star prospect Randy Brady. What else could they be looking for? Here are three needs Paris could look to fill this signing period, which started Wednesday and runs through Aug. 1.
An experienced big man: Paris has done a good job of working the transfer portal since taking over, and losing the 6-foot-9, 223-pound Kenic will put a premium on finding a forward who can contribute right away, possibly a graduate transfer. The Mocs have a number of versatile players who served as the team's core this past season, and while junior K.C. Hankton (6-7, 217) doesn't have Kenic's size, he's shown he can be a factor inside or outside, where he knocked down 15 3-pointers (on 55 attempts) in 15 games after the NCAA approved a blanket waiver in December that made him immediately eligible. The Mocs won't need to replace Kenic's production (11.8 points per game, 37% 3-point shooting), but a player with college experience who can step in and provide an interior presence is important.
A younger guard: One of the things that made the 2020-21 Mocs so dangerous was their versatility on offense. Of the eight primary rotation players, seven of them stood at least 6-4, and three — Smith, senior David Jean-Baptiste and A.J. Caldwell — served as lead guards at some point. But Jean-Baptiste will be gone after next season and Caldwell the year after that, which puts a premium on finding a guy who can step in and learn behind three quality players. It probably wouldn't hurt if that player had some size to him as well and could play multiple positions.
A younger big man: Finding a younger player who has a versatile skill set similar to that of Hankton could be a priority. The Mocs already have the next Darius Banks in Brady, and they should be OK at guard with some depth there. But what they are missing is an interior player with undeveloped skills — losing Obidiebube (6-8, 208) and the likely loss of junior Mark Tikhonenko (the 6-9, 238-pounder played two games in late November before visa issues took him out of the country) hurts there — and finding one has to be important. Maybe this addition plays a lot or maybe just a little next season, but it will be vital to get an athlete of that caliber in the program to build for not just next season but the future.