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Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / UTC 's Malachi Smith (13) celebrates after David Jean-Baptiste (3) made a 3-pointer during a home win against The Citadel on Feb. 13 at McKenzie Arena. Smith said he believes the Mocs can be good enough next season to receive an NCAA tournament berth even if they don't win the SoCon's automatic bid for the 68-team bracket.

In four seasons with Lamont Paris as coach of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball program, the Mocs' winning percentage has improved from one year to the next throughout his tenure.

So it's safe to say that going into the 2021-22 season, expectations are going to be pretty high.

And with the NCAA transfer portal filling up with players from other schools who didn't like their initial choice, UTC — which has had more than a dozen players transfer out since Paris took over in 2017 and had quite the roster shakeup this past season — looks like a program with a chance to stand pat. Prosper Obidiebube, a sophomore, is the only player currently in the portal from UTC, which closed the season with a Southern Conference tournament quarterfinal loss to rival East Tennessee State University on March 6. A couple others could have decisions to make regarding their future with the Mocs, but right now there doesn't appear to be much turnover ahead of next season.

Based on this past season, an expectation to be toward the top of the SoCon is good. The Mocs are thinking higher, though.

"We're going in not expecting anything less than national top-25 consideration and March Madness," sophomore guard Malachi Smith told the Times Free Press recently. "And if something happens, like us having a bad shooting night in the (conference) tournament, we're getting an at-large bid because we're that good, like Loyola or Drake, teams that were getting an at-large whether they won their tournaments or not. That's our goal.

"For some teams that's not realistic, but that's very realistic for us, and that's our mindset starting today, starting in April. It's not just going to happen; it's not going to just click in October or November when the first game comes. It's a mentality that you have to have when you're working, when you're running, when you're by yourself. That has to be your mentality all season."

Making the NCAA tournament via an at-large bid would be unfamiliar territory for a team from the SoCon, despite the league raising its profile in recent years.

Four schools have won the men's basketball championship since Appalachian State, Davidson, Elon and Georgia Southern left the conference after the 2013-14 season: UTC once and ETSU, UNC Greensboro and Wofford twice apiece. But in each case, those teams finished the regular season in first place and likely wouldn't have made the NCAA's 68-team bracket had they not won the SoCon tournament. Being considered for an at-large bid would require a combination of dominance in a tough conference slate and some high-profile nonconference wins.

As of now, UTC is expected to retain at least the players responsible for 95% of the scoring from a team that went 9-0 in nonconference play, 18-8 overall and 9-7 in the SoCon. Eight Mocs who started at least nine games are expected back, and it's more likely that the team adds multiple players than loses them.

This season's ending — with COVID-19 protocol leaving UTC shorthanded in its loss to ETSU, a team it swept in the regular season — could provide extra motivation for the Mocs, too.

"I'm not a boisterous person whatsoever. I am realistic," Paris said. "I'll simply say that I loved coaching this team this year, and one of the hardest things to digest was that was the end of it, that was the end of this particular team. Well, you've got a chance to have basically the same team again next year, and that excites me to no level, and our expectations are going to be really high I know when that's a realistic thing, and when it's just talk, and it's not just talk now. Top 25 would be great; it's been done in this league before, so that would be an aspiration of ours to take the guesswork out of it, so that if you end up in a SoCon championship game and don't perform well that you still have a chance to be considered for the NCAA tournament.

"I want my guys thinking like Malachi because if you don't think that way, then achieving that is not near as realistic, and I'm so glad that he and others think that way, but a lot of guys have to improve. You have to play well, you have to shoot well, you have to be really committed to defensive concepts and principles in a way that we were not last year, and so to say those or think those or believe those things, some significant changes have to be made, but I think our guys are capable of making those changes."

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.

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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / UTC men's basketball coach Lamont Paris, whose fourth season leading the Mocs ended with a SoCon tournament quarterfinal loss this month, might not have nearly as many roster headaches to deal with ahead of or during the 2021-22 schedule as he has in the past.

BETTER ALL THE TIME

The overall and SoCon records, with winning percentages in parentheses, for the UTC men’s basketball team in four seasons with Lamont Paris as coach:

2017-18: 10-23 (.303), 3-15 (.167)

2018-19: 12-20 (.375), 7-11 (.389)

2019-20: 20-13 (.606), 10-8 (.556)

2020-21: 18-8 (.692), 9-7 (.562)

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