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Chattanooga men's basketball coach Lamont Paris directs players during the Mocs' SoCon basketball game against the Furman Paladins at McKenzie Arena on Saturday, March 2, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn.
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Mark Wiedmer

Rumor has it that back in the day, when Lamont Paris was still a grade-school baseball phenom in Findlay, Ohio, rather than the head basketball coach of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, he was a pretty fair pitcher.

And so it was that Monday evening, along with "Sport Talk" radio show Hall of Famers Patrick "Nature Boy" Tocco and Wesley "Wild Thing" Williams, Paris tossed one of three ceremonial first pitches prior to the Chattanooga Lookouts' game against the Mobile BayBears at AT&T Field.

Just for the record, not only did all three men deliver strikes, at least by former major league umpire Eric Gregg's generous standards, none of them damaged the bare hands of Lookouts bench coach and former major leaguer Darren Bragg, who bravely squatted behind the plate without benefit of a mask, chest protector or mitt.

"I'd give me an A-minus on location," Paris said afterward as he prepared to join his Mocs players in the stadium stands. "I'd probably give me a B-minus on speed, but you have to factor in the fact that the catcher wasn't wearing a glove."

Listen to the Mocs players after their first pickup game of the summer and you'd assume Paris would give them an A for both performance and effort.

"We've got a lot more chemistry back than a year ago," said returning post player Ramon Vila, who played half of last season after transferring in from Arizona State. "And we've got a lot of talented freshmen. Throw in (Vanderbilt graduate transfer) Matt Ryan's experience, and we should be pretty good. I think we have a chance to win the Southern Conference."

Paris knows a championship contender isn't made in a day. He also knows that after having the youngest team in the country in his inaugural season two years ago and one of the six least experienced teams anywhere last season, he finally has both talent and experience heading into the 2019-20 campaign.

"I'm super excited," Paris said after throwing his final warm-up pitches. "It seems like we've gone straight from last season to right now."

As soon as Ryan entered the transfer portal following Vanderbilt's firing of coach Bryce Drew, Paris went straight to his cellphone to set up a meeting with him.

"He was the first head coach to call me once I put my name in the transfer portal," said Ryan, who averaged 8.1 points and 2.7 rebounds a game for the Commodores last season after spending his first two years at Notre Dame.

"He drove up to Nashville to meet with me. We met at Bread and Co. for breakfast. We talked for three hours."

Recalled Paris: "I ordered a breakfast sandwich, but I don't think I finished it. I was too busy flapping my gums for most of it."

Whatever he said obviously worked. Ryan, who grew up in New York cheering the Yankees rather than the Mets — "One is an embarrassment, the other is legendary," he said with great passion — believes his third college team will be a charm.

"We've got guys who can score; we've got guys who can defend," he said. "We're all excited."

Paris is excited about both the season and the trip the Mocs will take to the Bahamas in August in advance of the season. The NCAA allows a school team to take such a trip once every four years, and this is UTC's year to travel for a bonding experience that often seems to elevate a team's chemistry and skill moving forward.

Until then, Paris will have a total of eight hours a week to spend with the Mocs, which he intends to somewhat equally split between pickup games and coaching sessions, as well as strength and conditioning.

"We really just wanted them to play together today, get to know each other," Paris said of the pickup format. "They're still learning each other. We told them to share the ball, play hard and have fun. Other than that, they'll figure it out."

It's just one practice. But Ryan, having spent the first three years of his college career in high major programs, believes he knows a potential mid-major champion when he sees it.

"We're going to win the league, 100 percent certain," he said.

If he's right, those three hours Paris spent flapping his gums over breakfast a few months back should earn the coach an A-plus in recruiting.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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