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Perhaps because unique times deserve unique celebrations, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga basketball coach Lamont Paris decided to have his Mocs over for dinner over the Christmas break, if only to thank them all for staying on campus during the holidays in order to lessen their chances of contracting COVID-19.

In order to show them how much he appreciated it, and perhaps provide them at least a hint of the home cooking they were missing, Paris made them his signature macaroni and cheese casserole.

"I make it from scratch," said Paris. "This isn't some box of Kraft mac and cheese. I start out with a roux, make a cream sauce, lots of cheese, add a block of Velveeta. Some people say that's just processed cheese, but that makes it creamy. I like that sauce to be smooth. Then I had some Cajun seasoning. It's pretty strong on the taste buds. I think that pan, and it was a pretty big pan, was the first thing to empty."

Malachi Smith — who was recently named the Southern Conference December player of the month after averaging a double-double for the second month in a row (16.1 ppg, 10.9 rebs) — admitted the casserole was pretty good.

A self-professed "foodie," Smith said, "We had it at Christmas. It was like a little taste of home, but it wasn't my mom's."

Hey, and this goes for any of us and all of us, what is?

But just the fact that Paris didn't order pizza is just another example of what sets him apart from the average college basketball coach, especially the single ones such as him who don't have a wife to fall back on when an opportunity arises to have his team to dinner.

Now if the Mocs can just get back to the strong season they were treating their fans to before Southern Conference play began when they host SoCon brother Samford Wednesday at 7 p.m. at McKenzie Arena in a rivalry that now spans 104 games, dating back to 1926. After all, UTC won its first nine games this season, the best start in school history and the first team in the country to start 9-0 this season when the Mocs completed a comeback win at Tennessee State on Dec. 22.

Then came a difficult home loss to Furman to start conference play, followed by a second league loss at VMI last Saturday.

"We played hard against Furman, we just made a few mistakes you can't make," said Paris. "But our guys were clearly frustrated afterward and as a coach you like to see that. We realized we let one get away. VMI was different. That's a good team, but we just didn't have the juice against VMI."

There won't be any juice in the McKenzie stands Wednesday night to help the Mocs out. UTC athletic director Mark Wharton announced Tuesday that due to COVID-19 issues, fans won't be allowed to attend university sports events in January due to the continued threat of the coronavirus.

"We are encouraged by the introduction of the vaccine to Hamilton County, but we do not feel it is appropriate to open our venues to spectators at this time," wrote Wharton in an open letter to the school's supporters. "This is a situation we continue to monitor, with the hopes of adjusting our policies as it improves."

Yet Paris sees at least one positive to having no fans in the stands.

"Don't get me wrong, when I was an assistant at Wisconsin and our Kohl Center was packed, there's no question those crowds won us some games," he said. "But it's also easier to communicate to your players sometimes when there isn't a crowd. You try to find the positives."

It could be argued that just the fact that we're still having a college basketball season despite its early stops and starts and cancelled games due to the coronavirus pandemic is a huge positive.

As Paris said of his players' decision to remain on campus for Christmas, "They want to play. They want to do whatever is needed to be able to play."

And as was the case with those conferences who chose to play college football, the playing of those games was a welcome, albeit momentary distraction from the struggling world around us.

So even if Mocs Nation can't be there in person tonight, even if the only way to keep up with their men's basketball heroes is to tune in WFLI 97.7 FM/1070 AM, as well as the TuneIn app, to hear the incomparable Voice of the Mocs, Jim Reynolds, describe the action for his 41st straight season, or by logging on to ESPN+, if you're a subscriber, it's still better than not having it at all.

Nor does Paris believe two early league losses will necessarily ruin a wonderful start to this promising season.

"It might be a good trade-off to lose at VMI if it makes us better in other games," said the fourth-year coach.

Especially if the pandemic allows enough other games to be played to have a full season.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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