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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / UTC mens basketball coach Lamont Paris watches the action at McKenzie Arena on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. UTC went on to defeat Northern Kentucky.

Maybe it was poor eyesight, a broken calculator, or merely the understandable disbelief that any University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball team could begin a season 4-0 and finish 14-14, but recent news that the current edition of the Mocs is the first since the 1987-88 campaign to win its first four games was off a couple of years.

It was actually the aforementioned 1989-90 season, which would oddly become the worst of Mack McCarthy's 12 years running the program.

Still, whichever of those seasons you're focusing on, a whole lot of time has passed since UTC started 4-0 as it heads into tonight's road game at Bellarmine, the private Catholic school in Louisville, Ky., that is transitioning to Division I.

"I didn't think it was all that important (starting 4-0)," said McCarthy, whose Mocs actually reached 5-0 in '87-88 before losing at Middle Tennessee State. "What we learned in those first four games was important."

He and his staff apparently learned enough from that start to later win the Southern Conference Tournament before dropping their NCAA Tournament opener to Oklahoma inside Atlanta's Omni. The Sooners would go on to reach that year's title game, where they fell to Kansas and Danny (Manning) and the Miracles. UTC finished 20-13, which was McCarthy's third 20-win season in three tries and his first NCAA bid.

Whether Lamont Paris's current Mocs can make a similar run in this bizarre, COVID-19-driven season remains to be seen. But he likes what he sees at the moment.

"Certainly it's a small sample size," said the fourth-year coach Tuesday afternoon. "But they should feel good about what they've been doing and how they've been improving."

Inheriting a program that was running off the tracks, the improvement has been both steady and dramatic, as well as visible both off the court and on it.

From a 10-win season his first year, Paris won 12 his second with one of the nation's youngest rosters. Last year not only saw the Mocs soar to a 20-13 record, but nearly reach the Southern Conference Tournament final before losing by two to perennial league power Wofford in the semis.

Said McCarthy of Paris's rebuilding work: "The lack of continuity and stability that he inherited has made his job really hard. Throw in the NIL (college athletes attempting to profit on their name, image and likeness), the transfer portal and transfer waivers and turning a program around, getting it in the right direction, is harder than ever."

McCarthy cautioned that the hardest thing about a hot start is forgetting the reasons behind those victories.

"Winning is a habit, but these guys haven't experienced a ton of that," he said, looking back over the last three seasons, especially the two before last year.

"Now they're probably hearing how good they are, and the natural inclination is to enjoy the good times. But I never let my players hear that from me. All they'd hear from me was what they were doing wrong. Though I'm sure Lamont's happy to be 4-0, he doesn't just want to be good in December. He wants to be good the first week of March in Asheville (at the SoCon tourney)."

If the Mocs have indeed been enjoying the good times more than they should, they've certainly not displayed any signs of overconfidence to date.

Just listen to Malachi Smith after Monday's impressive 80-70 victory at MTSU: "Sometimes I think it's good to face that adversity. Every game is not perfect. You can't control the shots falling, but you can control what you do defensively. It's good for us to get the experience getting those stops. Defense is our backbone."

When your players mention that their focus is on defense first, you've got the mindset you want to become the best you can be.

"I don't think we're overconfident," said Paris of any concerns this team could be feeling too good about itself too fast. "And under-confidence is a bad place to be no matter how you slice it. Right now, I think we have just the right amount of confidence for what we've earned to this point."

The other thing they have in abundance that impresses McCarthy is experience. The UTC roster includes one grad student, one redshirt senior, two true seniors, three redshirt juniors, two true juniors, one redshirt sophomore, three sophomores and two redshirt freshmen.

So there's not a true freshman on the roster and 10 players with at least two years of college hoops under their belts with seven of those beginning no less than their fourth year of action.

Said McCarthy of the value of such experience as he pointed to the last four NCAA champs being blessed with similar, if not quite equal, maturity: "It's been really important for half a decade, maybe a decade. But this year, with all that's going on, all the uncertainty due to the coronavirus, having a veteran team that knows what it's doing, that you already know about, is more important than ever."

It just might be important enough for the Mocs to not only add to their current winning streak, but also become the SoCon team to beat come March in Asheville.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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