Wiedmer: Mocs off to a perfect SoCon start

Wiedmer: Mocs off to a perfect SoCon start

December 10th, 2018 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Because everyone likes a holiday treat this time of year, here's an early one for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga basketball fans among us:

By at least one comparative score, the University of Kentucky's nationally ranked Wildcats want no part of the Mocs these days.

Exactly three weeks after the VMI Keydets emerged from UK's Rupp Arena with a gritty 10-point loss after knocking down 19 3-pointers against the Cats — they trailed by only six with 90 seconds to play — those same Keydets hit only six triples in losing by 18 points to UTC on Sunday inside McKenzie Arena.

Beyond that, VMI star Bubba Parham, who lit up Big Blue for 36 points and 10 treys, scored just 13 against the Mocs while connecting on only one of five 3-pointers.

"Well, by that comparison alone, I guess we are better than Kentucky," a smiling Mocs coach Lamont Paris said after the 83-65 victory improved UTC to 5-5 on the season. "And while I don't want to make too much of something like this, when we scored 55 at Michigan (in an 83-55 loss on Nov. 23), that was the second most points they'd given up all year."

Maybe the Mocs could knock off Kentucky and maybe they couldn't, but they've now defeated every Southern Conference team they've played, even if VMI was UTC's first SoCon game of the season.

Still, the Mocs are not only 1-0 in league play, they're also riding a three-game winning streak as they begin a three-game road trip to Georgia State (Wednesday), Ole Miss (Sunday) and UT-Martin (Dec. 18).

And all this from a program that wound up returning but one player — David Jean-Baptiste — from last year's roster.

"We did some good things defensively in the second half against a good individual player in Parham," said Paris. "Hopefully it does wonders for our confidence on both sides of the ball."

UTC's two leading scorers in this one certainly looked and sounded confident, both during the win and afterward.

Sporting a freshly shaven head in his first start of the year, redshirt sophomore point guard Jean-Baptiste not only scored 18 points, handed out five assists and committed zero turnovers, he found himself guarding the high-scoring Parham more than anyone else.

"I'm really proud of him," said Paris, who also said of his lone returning player's new 'do: "He's streamlined, more aerodynamically perfect. Look great, play great."

Jean-Baptiste later admitted that the haircut wasn't actually voluntary.

"I just pledged a fraternity," he said of his decision to join Omega Psi Phi a few weeks ago. "(The shaved head) is part of their tradition. It was a sacrifice, I guess, but I was going to cut it at some point anyway. I don't know that I would have done this, though."

Yet however much Jean-Baptiste's shave may have surprised some, freshman phenom Kevin Easley's style statement with his game shorts is proving to be an unpleasant surprise for many referees.

After scoring a game-high and career-high 26 points in just his 10th game as a Moc, Easley admitted that his long habit of rolling up his shorts at the waistband — "I started doing it when I was 10 years old," said the Indianapolis, Ind., native — is wearing thin with some of the officials in striped shirts.

"They'll say, 'It's not appropriate,'" Easley said. "But I always wind up rolling them back up. I can't help it."

Said Paris, gently shaking his head, "It's a trend. A style. Some of the kids have been doing it for awhile now."

What UTC hasn't been doing for awhile now is drawing even moderately respectable crowds to McKenzie Arena to watch these stylish new Mocs on the block grow into a SoCon contender before their eyes. Sunday's announced crowd of 2,301 was embarrassing for a conference opener even if that was the real figure rather than the padded one.

Even going by the official stats, these Mocs haven't played before a single home crowd of more than 2,568. When you can beat a conference foe by eight more points than Kentucky did on its home court and defend them even more impressively than that, you deserve more support from your fan base.

That said, like most programs this time of year — especially if there are any others out there with but one returning player — UTC remains a work in progress.

For all his good early work in averaging a team-high 15.9 ppg, Easley remains a true freshman. With fellow freshman Maurice Commander at least temporarily sidelined with an injury, even more pressure falls on the newly aerodynamically improved Jean-Baptiste to be as smooth as the crown of his head each time he takes the court as the starting point guard.

The transfer veterans such as Thomas Smallwood and Jerry Johnson Jr. must grow as well, though Johnson's Sunday stat line of 17 points, six assists and five rebounds continues a run that has seen him average 13.8 points, 3.8 rebs and 3.2 assists over his last five starts.

Said Easley late Sunday, "Our confidence is ridiculous right now."

Ten games into a transitional season in which so little was reasonably expected, there's certainly nothing not appropriate about that.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

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