CHATTANOOGA, TENN.--Officially referred to as the "Scenic City," the city of Chattanooga, TN, has been an attractive tourist destination for many reasons, especially with its historical significance to the southeast of the United States.
The "Chattanooga Choo Choo" and The Coca Cola Bottling Company are two significant landmarks, while the Tennessee Aquarium offers one of the newer attractions to the old, rustic city located at the base of Lookout Mountain.
For as many reasons as there are to visit the historic city, one of those reasons surely did not include the Chattanooga basketball team in November and the better part of December. The Mocs, who are the preseason favorites to claim the North Division title in the SoCon, dealt with plenty of adversity in the first two months of the 2011-12 season. However, it would be the adversity faced that would lead to the perfect remedy, and one that would be a just what Dr.John Shulman ordered.
Heading into the Dr. Pepper Classic—the traditional post-Christmas tournament hosted at Chattanooga's McKenzie Arena for better than two decades—the Mocs had just a 4-8 overall record, with only one win against an NCAA Division I program.
Wins over Hiwassee College (95-41), Spalding (98-48) and Warren Wilson (83-36) were certainly not anything for the basketball-savvy Chattanooga fanbase to get too excited about.
The Mocs had also had some bad luck, and started 0-2 in SoCon play, with losses at Georgia Southern (76-84) and suffered a heartbreaking double-overtime loss at College of Charleston (85-87) in a game in which the Mocs shot the basketball at a blistering 70 percent clip in the second half of play.
In the local media, articles were even written about a local high school tournament being more exciting the upcoming Dr. Pepper Classic in which the Mocs would host three other schools, in Utah Valley, Longwood and Hampton—certainly not named college basketball programs even at the mid-major level. But while the Dr. Pepper Classic wasn't of much appeal from a fan's perspective, it did serve as a launching pad for the Mocs to now resemble those preseason expectations.
The opening 12 games of the 2011-12 season for head coach John Shulman and his Mocs must have felt like 28 games, as the Mocs had not only the adversity of struggling to find themselves on the court but had to deal with plenty of drama off the floor. At the center of that "off-the-court" drama was senior forward Chris Early and his Twitter account.
Early had made some rather disparaging comments towards his head coach, and those comments would surface just prior to the Mocs' Dec. 17 clash with No. 3 Kentucky in Lexington, as Early's Twitter account would be the focus of fodder for a local Lexington, KY, radio station.
It was supposed to be a homecoming of sorts for Early, as the city of Lexington, KY, isn't all too far away from his hometown of Huntington, WV. However, Early would be suspended by Shulman, and it would in essence be the end of a career for a player expected to be one of the leaders for the preseason North Division favorites. The Mocs would of course would drop an 87-62 game to the Wildcats, and some fans were fed up with Shulman, who's now in his eighth season at the helm in the Scenic City.
Shulman, a graduate of former heated SoCon rival East Tennessee State, which probably doesn't sit well with some of the Mocs proud fans, has helped build upon a foundation already more solid than Rock City itself. Shulman has posted a 129-115 mark in his tenure on the sidelines at Chattanooga and has led the Mocs to Southern Conference Tournament titles in 2005 and '09, which yielded subsequent NCAA Tournament invites.
But, after winning the SoCon title in his first season as head coach, taking a 66-62 championship win over UNC Greensboro in the 2005 SoCon title game in a tournament played at the Roundhouse, the honeymoon started to wear off last season, when the Mocs were ousted from the league tournament on their home floor in the quarterfinals, with a 61-52 loss to Furman. Many were also more interested in giving credit to McKenzie Arena rather than Shulman for leading the Mocs to league tournament crowns.
However, if you look at how Chattanooga has been able to win basketball games under the direction of Shulman the past eight seasons, the Mocs almost seem to be driven by adversity. In the 2004-05 campaign, it was a Mocs team that was a work in progress nearly the whole season, as Chattanooga struggled to shoot the basketball effectively, and at times, score points altogether.
But led by senior guard Casey Long and forwards Chris Brown and Mindaugas Katelynas, the Mocs used mental toughness and sheer will to reach their first NCAA tournament in four years, with the five-point win over UNCG.
In the postgame presser after that rookie season triumph for Shulman, the always jovial, personable coach joked about his team's inability to shoot the basketball. He also rationalized why his team was one of the top rebounding clubs in college basketball was because they had missed so many shots throughout the season that they knew how to position themselves to box out.
But the makeup of that team would become thematic of what Shulman's teams would resemble over the next seven years. They would be teams that were physical specimens in the paint, athletic at guard and small forward and teams with a great sense of mental toughness.
The Mocs would personify mental toughness to even a greater degree in the 2009 SoCon title run. After all, that season had seen the Mocs start the season 2-8 and had many wondering what in the world was going on with a team that returned five seniors and was expected to be the North Division favorites. At one point in the 2008-09 season, the Mocs found themselves at 4-10 overall and 0-3 in SoCon play.
However, that's where things would begin to turn around for Shulman's Mocs. Chattanooga pulled it together to win 10 of its next 13 games to clinch a tie for the North Division title but would lose its final three regular-season games, as the Mocs headed into the league tournament, which they also hosted.
But the Mocs would put it all together, and the five seniors, led by the likes of Nicchaeus Doaks, Stephen McDowell, Keyron Sheard and Khalil Hartwell, Chattanooga would upset College of Charleston, 80-69, in the title game. The Mocs beat a Charleston team that had just ended Davidson and Stephen Curry's three-year run atop the SoCon with the title game victory.
Though not as talented as the 2004-05 team, the formula had been the same as Shulman's first team, which was struggle early and figure it all out by the time tournament time rolls around. There was even some unforeseen adversity last season, as the whole team came down with the flu, forcing the postponement of a league game with Western Carolina.
In much the same uncanny fashion, the Mocs and Shulman found themselves having to "figure it all out" once again through the first two months of the 2011-12 season. Adding to the Early saga, Chattanooga's play on the court had been less than spectacular through, with losses to Gardner-Webb (74-76) and Kennesaw State (59-65) on its home floor. The Mocs even struggled to beat lowly Savannah State (65-63).
The Mocs were struggling to find the right balance in scoring and were having to mesh newcomers Z. Mason and Drazen Zlovaric in the paint underneath. But when no one was literally looking or expecting it, Shulman's Mocs would catch fire in the Dr. Pepper Classic, or more specifically, in the second half of the 85-50 win over Longwood.
It was a game that Chattanooga held only two leads in the opening half of play but would explode to outscore the Lancers 53-20 in the second half, after leading just 32-30 at the break.
Since that half of basketball, the Mocs have been a different basketball team. Chattanooga would stroll to a 74-59 win over Utah Valley in the title game. Chattanooga followed that up with a trip to Knoxville, TN, where the Mocs played one of their most inspired games of the season before dropping a 76-63 contest to the Vols.
The Mocs shot the ball poorly (34.5 percent) but put forth one their best defensive efforts of the campaign, limiting Tennessee to just 39.7 percent from the field.
Conference play would begin in-earnest a few nights later, with red-hot Western Carolina visiting The Roundhouse to face the Mocs. However, when adversity crept in late in the game, Shulman's Mocs responded in emphatic fashion. With Western Carolina holding a 60-58 lead with 6:59 to play, the Mocs slammed the door in the face of the Catamounts, finishing the game with a 20-2 run, including reeling off 18 straight, en route to an impressive 78-62 win.
The Mocs would find themselves needing to reach down and find a way for a win last Saturday night against Appalachian State and would get a the winning dose of medicine from an unlikely source—Dontay Hampton.
Hampton was a player who found himself in a situation to provide the heroics only as a result of the Mocs' second-leading scorer, Omar Wattad, having been forced to miss the contest with back problems.
The Mocs would find themselves with their proverbial backs against the wall late in the contest, with ASU holding a 63-58 lead with 2:13 to play after an Omar Carter layup, but that would be the last points the Mountaineers would score, as Chattanooga responded with a 7-0 run to close out its second league win.
With the score tied, 63-63, Chattanooga forward Z. Mason forced a missed three-pointer out of ASU's Omar Carter, setting the stage for the diminutive Hampton to be the biggest player on the floor in the waning moments.
Hampton grabbed the rebound off Carter's missed trey and raced through the ASU defense, maneuvering around two Mountaineers near the timeline before hurdling the final challenge at the basket, as his soft layup went through the rim with .08, setting off raucous celebrations among the Mocs team and fans at McKenzie Arena.
Hampton was all smiles, calling the shot the best moment of his life. As Shulman accurately noted in his weekly radio show, Hampton might not have found himself in that situation if it weren't for adversity and starter Wattad's back pain. It couldn't have happened to a better person, in Hampton, who walked on to the program three years ago.
Hampton is the type player who championship teams have been founded upon in this league in the past, with Appalachian State's Matt McMahon coming to mind, as well as the Chattanooga's own walk-on stories, in Wes Moore and Isaac Conner, who saw their careers culminate in a Sweet 16 run by the Mocs in 1996.
Now, the next challenge greets Shulman and the Mocs in the form of the two-time defending champion Wofford, which visits The Roundhouse on Thursday night for a key interdivisional league clash. The last time the Terriers came to the Scenic City, they departed with a 39-point (97-58) win over the Mocs late last February. Shulman got no love from his best friend, Mike Young, as his Terriers did not let up in that beat down of the Mocs.
However, even that scoreline from last season has remained up on the scoreboard this season during practices for Shulman's Mocs as yet another teachable moment.
For a program that has won 28 championships in 34 seasons as a league member in some form (10 tournament titles, 10 regular-season titles and eight divisional crowns), the city of Chattanooga has high expectations for its basketball program, and after a hard-luck football season, saw the Mocs football team, which was arguably among the league's most talented teams lose five games by 12 points; it's been a frustrating past few months in the Scenic City. But now, the tide appears to be turning for the Mocs.
The truth is, head coach John Shulman is not all that much different than Ron Shumate, Murray Arnold or Mack McCarthy, because he teaches his teams how to win. Mental toughness was something always associated with McCarthy's teams, as the Mocs seemed to find themselves in binds plenty of times late in games on McCarthy's watch, but always found ways to win. That's what Shulman has done in the Scenic City.
Shulman has taught his players how to be mentally tough, and he genuinely cares about his players. It's time fans stopped giving Shulman the "Tubby Smith treatment" and started being thankful for the adversity they have.
Without adversity, growth cannot take place and complacency sets in.