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Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / UTC's Darius Banks, left, and Malachi Smith celebrate after a score during the Mocs' 71-60 win against Wofford on Jan. 26 at McKenzie Arena. Banks and Smith, who are roommates, hope to help lead the SoCon regular-season champions to a sweep of the conference titles by winning the league tournament in Asheville, N.C.

In hindsight, Darius Banks and Malachi Smith realize it was a bad idea.

Fresh off helping the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to an 82-52 home win over East Tennessee State University in a Southern Conference men's basketball opener on Dec. 30, the two teammates who are also roommates hopped in a car and made an overnight trip to Florida. Their destination was the Tampa Bay area, where Smith's mom Connie and Banks' mom Latasha Bristol both live, and where Banks was once a prep star.

The two Mocs shared driving duties, though, and never fell asleep during an eight-hour ride that allowed them another chance to bond by making memories beyond those on the court during their college basketball careers, neither of which started at UTC. That's what college is for, right?

"It's special," Banks said, "especially because we can talk without it being forced or without it being like, 'I have to talk to this person.' I want to talk to him. I want to tell him everything. I want to tell him about me and my family.

"I look at him as a brother."

The love is reciprocated by Smith, who chose to stand by his brother while Banks was struggling early last season.

Banks had transferred from James Madison University after three years of starting for the Dukes and hadn't planned to apply for a waiver that would have made him immediately eligible for the 2020-21 campaign. Then in late December, the NCAA granted a blanket waiver making all transfers immediately eligible in hopes of allowing teams to have more bodies available during the height of COVID-19. And the Mocs needed bodies — at one point they were down to using seven scholarship players due to transfers exiting the program.

However, Banks was fighting something different: A sort of homesickness. Since his arrival in Chattanooga, he had been contemplating a move back to JMU, meaning he'd never suit up for the Mocs. Smith, who played at Wright State as a freshman and then sat out the 2019-20 season after transferring to UTC, never pressed Banks.

"When I was redshirting, certain players were trying to get me to play," Smith said. "So from personal experience, it's your own choice, so I wasn't trying to persuade him to do anything. I just wanted him to do what he feels comfortable doing, and if he wants to play, we're open and supportive with open arms. But if he doesn't, it's OK, so I think the fact that he decided he wanted to play, it was his own decision. He didn't feel persuaded or anything."

Banks and Smith season didn't start the 2020-21 season at the same time, but it ended simultaneously for them when Banks came down with COVID-19 just as the team was getting ready to head to the SoCon tournament. Smith was actually in his car when he got the call to turn back around because, as Banks' roommate, he was a close contact. Smith actually tested negative, but erring on the side of caution, UTC's coaching staff decided to leave him in Chattanooga as well.

The short-handed Mocs, seeded fourth but a trendy pick to win the league tourney, fell 63-53 to ETSU in the quarterfinals, finishing the season 18-8.

Both players said they felt worse for the other one than they did themselves, but Smith also said "everything happens for a reason" — and the disappointing end to last season provided the motivation that has led to a lot of the success this season.

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Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / UTC coach Lamont Paris, background, looks on as UTC's Malachi Smith (13) and Darius Banks battle Furman's Alex Hunter for the ball during a SoCon game at McKenzie Arena on Jan. 15. Banks and Smith are roommates who began their college basketball careers at other programs but have become close during their time with the Mocs.

Smith became the program's first conference player of the year since Johnny Taylor in 1997, while Banks — who has a combined 1,465 points in his JMU and UTC careers — has flashed his talent as a key role player, averaging 8.5 points per game but exploding for a season-high 26 at Furman on Feb. 12, a a 64-58 win that put UTC in the driver's seat for the top seed.

The program won its first SoCon regular-season title since 2016, and now the Mocs are three wins away from the league's postseason title and its automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. They'll start their time at the SoCon tournament in Asheville, North Carolina, by playing the first quarterfinal Saturday at noon against The Citadel (13-17). The ninth-seeded Bulldogs tipped off the tourney Friday evening with an 84-76 overtime victory against eighth-seeded ETSU.

If the Mocs win, they'll face either fourth-seeded Wofford or fifth-seeded Virginia Military Institute in Sunday's first semifinal at 4 p.m. The title game is Monday night.

As the SoCon regular-season champions, there is a National Invitation Tournament bid in the Mocs' back pocket if they don't make the 68-team NCAA bracket. Banks said that hasn't come up as a topic of discussion.

"That's why I came out with a chip on my shoulder every game, why I went so hard in the offseason, so I could have this moment," Smith said. "It's crazy that we're here already, but we have more work to do. We're not done yet, and we're right there, so we're just locked in on getting it done."

Smith has been in a similar situation before: When he was a freshman at Wright State, the Raiders won the regular-season championship but lost the Horizon League title game and had to settle for an automatic bid to the NIT. Banks hasn't: His three JMU teams won a combined 36 games, whereas UTC has won 42 in his two seasons.

In both cases, though, they know the mission ahead. They embrace it, just like the rest of their UTC teammates.

But the primary bond, the one that can't be broken, is between the two.

"We have each other's backs," Smith said. "We come from single-parent homes, and we just want to do whatever it takes to win. We're both real and authentic and don't like all the extra stuff — we just like to be chill and enjoy our alone time, so we found that connection.

"That's why I say we're going to be brothers forever."

Contact Gene Henley at Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.