John Shulman understands there’s no such thing as rebuilding at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC).
Despite having graduated the entire starting lineup from last season’s Southern Conference championship team, the Mocs’ basketball coach is determined to mould a unit over the coming months that will compete for another NCAA tournament berth.
They got an early start on the season coming north of the border for four exhibition games, a trip American schools are allowed to make once every four years. UTC was last in Canada in 2004, when the Mocs played at Ottawa and Carleton.
“The reason we wanted to do this was to get invaluable experience,” said Shulman, an East Tennessee State alumnus entering his sixth season as bench boss. “It’s so important for us to do this. I’m not sure I love our basketball team at this moment, but we’ll get there.”
Playing against the University of Toronto less than 12 hours after arriving in the country, UTC dropped an 85-70 decision. The Mocs were back on the court six hours later and held on to defeat York 78-71 after leading comfortably for most of the game.
The team toured the CN Tower and took in the Blue Jays-Yankees game the next day prior to losing at Guelph that evening. Chattanooga defeated Sheridan College before flying home with a split of the four games.
The Mocs started working out on Aug. 24 in preparation for those games. NCAA regulations restrict team practices before Oct. 16, but players can work out individually for two hours a week.
Chattanooga opens its season at home on Nov. 13 against Virginia Intermont.
This year’s schedule is considerably easier than last season’s, when the team opened against Tennessee, Missouri, Memphis and USC. Three of those teams were ranked in the U.S. top 20 at the time.
The first four games this year are against NAIA-school Virginia-Intermont, followed by East Tennessee State, Richmond and Missouri.
Shulman hopes to have his team set by the middle of December, when the Mocs play host to Georgia Tech.
Last year’s team started 2-9, but peaked at the right time of the year en route to the school’s 10th NCAA tournament appearance. Playing host to its conference tournament provided the Mocs with a home-court advantage that it rode to Philadelphia and March Madness.
“We didn’t deserve a 16 seed, but our record [18-16 entering the tournament] indicated that we did,” said Shulman, whose team was trounced 103-47 by top-seeded Connecticut in the opening round. “We kind of got what we deserved. We didn’t take care of business our last three games in the regular-season and that’s why we got a 16.”
It was Shulman’s second trip to the tournament in his five years at the school. In 2005, Chattanooga was much more competitive, leading Wake Forest by three at the half before falling 70-54. in the first round
The Mocs received a lot of publicity in the week leading up to the game against Connecticut, when late-night talk show host Jimmy Fallon adopted the school as his team for the tournament. Shulman was interviewed on the show via Skype the day before they met UConn, and flew to New York with his seniors to appear on the show the night after.
Chattanooga has won the Southern Conference North Division title three times since Shulman achieved his dream of becoming a Division I basketball coach at age 37 back in April 2004.
In his first season, he guided the Mocs to the division title, the conference championship and a 69-68 victory at Tennessee, the school’s first victory over the Volunteers since 1927.