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Wisconsin assistant coach Lamont Paris sends directions to players on the court during the first half of a game against UW-Milwaukee at the Kohl Center in Madison, Wis. Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2015. JOHN HART -- State Journal

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Mocs pick Paris: Former Wisconsin assistant now in charge

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Mark Wiedmer
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University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletic director David Blackburn will quickly tell anyone willing to listen that "my reputation and my job are on the line" with every hire he makes.

On Sunday night, the school announced the eighth of those hires in the four years Blackburn has been on the job. His name is Lamont Paris and he's leaving his top assistant's post at Wisconsin to take over the Mocs.

If he's even close to being as impressive as the AD's other hires — most notably former men's basketball coaches Will Wade and Matt McCall, Hall of Fame women's coach Jim Foster and new football coach Tom Arth — Mocs hoops should be just fine.

But it's what Blackburn noticed about Paris during the Badgers' 66-63 win over Xavier in the 2016 NCAA tournament that should make Mocs Maniacs the region over more than a little bit happy that big brother Tennessee decided to pass over Blackburn as the Big Orange AD in favor of John Currie.

Let us set the stage. The Badgers and Musketeers are tied at 63-all late in the final seconds of that round-of-32 game. Badgers guard Bronson Koenig drifts to the right corner, where he buries a 3-pointer to put Wisconsin up 66-63 with less than a second to go.

Naturally, the Badgers bench erupts. Everyone in Wisconsin red is jumping up and down. Hugging. High-fiving. Celebrating.

Well, everyone except Paris, who was already calculating anything and everything that could go wrong, not that anything did.

"I already knew Lamont," Blackburn said late Sunday night during a brief press conference at McKenzie Arena.

"He was very high on my list when we hired Matt (McCall) two years ago. But what I saw that night stuck with me. I've always been suspicious of coaches who watch the ball. The ball's a facade. When Wisconsin scored, Lamont was the only one not elated. He was already thinking about the next move. Lamont plays chess, not checkers. He's always thinking ahead. That's important in recruiting. That's important if you're getting beat by 50."

Blackburn will surely screw up one of these coaching searches at some point. Nobody bats 1.000 in these things. Everybody strikes out once in awhile.

But the hiring of Paris appears to be yet another of the AD's superb judgments of talent and ability, as well as the skill to lure that talent to the Scenic City.

Certainly he knew Paris previously, from when Blackburn decided on former Florida assistant McCall. And though McCall might have left earlier than anyone expected when he took the University of Massachusetts job last week, he did win a school-record 29 games his first year while leading UTC to its first NCAA tournament appearance in seven years.

But now he's gone, and it's Paris's time to light up this city.

"This was not a hasty decision, rather it was a decisive one," Blackburn said in a news release that noted the importance of continuing the program's proud tradition.

Blackburn said he flew to Arizona — the site of the Final Four — at 7 a.m. Thursday. He returned to Chattanooga at 6 Sunday night. In between he interviewed a total of eight candidates. In a noteworthy show of class and respect, Blackburn personally called every candidate he interviewed to tell them Paris was getting the job, but he appreciated their willingness to interview.

That said, Paris — who, according to Blackburn, "has turned down lots of jobs" — got a phone call from the UTC AD within four or five hours of McCall's decision to move on.

Anyone with the slightest knowledge of the Wisconsin program since Paris joined the staff prior to the 2010-11 season can see why Blackburn wanted him. Over these past seven years Wisconsin has averaged 27 wins a season, reached the Sweet 16 six times, the Final Four twice and the national championship game once, where it lost to Duke in 2015.

Said second-year Badgers coach Greg Gard, another longtime Wisconsin aide who succeeded the legendary Bo Ryan: "It's bittersweet to see one of your best friends move away, but I'm so happy for and proud of (Lamont). He's more than paid his dues and climbed the professional ladder the right way. I will always be grateful to Lamont for everything he did in seven years for this program, particularly over the past two seasons helping me in my transition to head coach. The Mocs are undoubtedly in good hands."

A single example of the new coach's recruiting skills: The mother of graduating Wisconsin star Nigel Hayes recently thanked Paris in a note posted on her Twitter account for signing her son.

A second example: Perhaps tired of watching so many of UTC's late-season losses traced to poor shooting, Blackburn was drawn to Paris's reputation for both identifying and developing shooters.

"He's a master at identifying shooters who can shoot off a pace," said the AD, referring to shooting off the dribble or catching and shooting off a pick. "He can teach them and he can identify them in recruiting."

And now the master of the shot will work for the master of the coaching hire.

Which just goes to show that Paris isn't the only guy in the UTC athletic department who's playing chess, not checkers.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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