The undefeated start to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball team's season ended before December was over. Now even the remnants of that 9-0 run by the Mocs, unprecedented in program history, are gone.
What they did over the first month of the season was mostly smoke and mirrors; it was never a sustainable model. The limited roster was always going to be a problem, as was the lack of continuity within those few numbers. While there was plenty to feel good about, there was just as much to be concerned about.
As a team, UTC isn't playing any better now than it was then. The Mocs are certainly playing harder, but the results in Southern Conference play have been quite different, with Saturday's 92-87 road loss at The Citadel dropping them to 10-3 overall and 1-3 in the league.
Sure, it would be easy to say the team is falling apart, but if that's the case, 99% of that has been physical.
UTC played the final 4:04 of Saturday's game in Charleston, South Carolina, without Josh Ayeni (17 points, seven rebounds), the final 2:39 without Stefan Kenic (19 points, five rebounds) and the final 21 seconds without A.J. Caldwell (five points, seven rebounds), all three having succumbed to foul trouble. That left an already rail-thin roster — coach Lamont Paris traveled with just eight available players — with only enough options for five on the floor, one of them junior walk-on Alex Tostado, who appeared in a game for the first time this season and just the sixth time in two years with the Mocs.
"What we're doing has to be sustainable, because tomorrow we're going to be doing the same thing," Paris said. "There's no other option; Alex Tostado has never hardly played. (Redshirt freshman) Jaden (Frazier) really hasn't played much at all, and then we get three guys foul out.
"We need to get some bodies back."
The SoCon schedule to this point hasn't done the Mocs any favors, as in consecutive games they've played the two fastest teams in the league in Samford and The Citadel (8-0, 1-0). So when UTC appeared tired in a second half in which the Bulldogs scored 56 points and shot 67% from the field, that's something to point to. So are the 19 fast-break points for the home team.
There is little time to regroup, though. Mercer (7-3, 0-2) comes to Chattanooga on Wednesday, followed by Wofford (6-4, 3-1) three days later.
Jamaal Walker had 17 points for the Mocs on Saturday, when Malachi Smith added 16 points with seven rebounds and five assists and David Jean-Baptiste had 13 points and four assists.
The Bulldogs' Hayden Brown had a monster game with 37 points and 13 rebounds, while Kaiden Rice added 21 points and Fletcher Abee chipped in 16.
The Mocs have been a perimeter-oriented team this season, but their two most important players Saturday were Ayeni and Kenic, the only two UTC players to post a positive plus-minus ratio. Ayeni's 17 points were a career high, and he also chipped in seven rebounds (four offensive) and was a presence on both ends of the court.
Maybe it was fatigue, or maybe it was bad shot selection, but the Mocs didn't hit a field goal in the final 3:47, which allowed the Bulldogs to close the game on an 8-2 run.
It was that final stretch. The Bulldogs had rested some of their better players midway through the second half to have them ready for the stretch run. The Mocs didn't have that option, especially with the foul trouble, and once the UTC players started fouling out in the final four minutes, Paris didn't have the options available to answer the Bulldogs' run.
"We're good enough to win the game with six players, so it's no excuse when we lose. It's frustrating because I know what type of team we can be — and it's still early, so we can get there — but it has to click for us at some point." — Smith, who played a season-low 31 minutes as he finished with four fouls
The SoCon is a difficult league full of good coaches with differing styles, and everyone has been taking note of UTC's lack of roster options. The Mocs can hold to hope that players currently out will be able to return and contribute, but if that doesn't happen, there's no way the team as currently constructed will be able to withstand a full slate of games.