Chattanooga riding versatility, perseverance to college basketball’s hottest start

Another year, another breakout team out of the SoCon.

A mid-major conference that consistently flies under the radar, the SoCon manages to produce formidable tournament candidates every March.

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Last year, Steve Forbes and ETSU were poised for an NCAA Tournament run after a 30-4 regular season that included victories over LSU, Winthrop, Furman and UNCG. By season’s end, BracketMatrix.com had the Buccaneers pegged as a dangerous No. 11 seed.

Just a year prior, Wofford pieced together a 30-win season of its own. Mike Young’s Terriers surged down the stretch behind the nation’s top perimeter attack, dominating Seton Hall in the March Madness first round before nearly upsetting the star-studded Kentucky Wildcats.

Though Wofford and ETSU should be factors once again, another team has emerged in the competitive SoCon.

Chattanooga is off to a 9-0 start — the first team to do so this season in Division-I — following its 66-63 win over Tennessee State on Saturday.

The Mocs’ winning streak hasn’t come without resistance, and that might be further vindication of the team’s legitimacy. Two non-D1 blowouts aside, Lamont Paris’ group has had to be sharp down the stretch to scrape out victories. Here are their seven D1 wins with notable deficits and minimum win probabilities in each game:

  • vs. Tennessee Tech — Trailed 52-48 in second half (21.7% win probability)
  • vs. Northern Kentucky — Trailed 31-30 at halftime (58.0% win probability)
  • vs. Middle Tennessee — Trailed 62-59 in second half (21.8% win probability)
  • vs. Bellarmine — Trailed 51-48 in second half (36.0% win probability)
  • vs. UNC Asheville — Trailed 66-63 in second half (7.6% win probability)
  • vs. UAB — Trailed 14-2 in first half (4.3% win probability)
  • vs. Tennessee State — Trailed 54-41 in second half (9.1% win probability)

To be 9-0 after falling under a 25-percent win probability on five separate occasions is an impressive feat on its own. But when also considering that Chattanooga’s top scorer, David Jean-Baptiste, is no longer with the team after a surprising transfer decision, this group’s perseverance is on full display.

“We have a collection of guys that don’t really care that much who’s doing what,” Paris said during the Heat Check on All-Access Media on Tuesday. “We don’t have a lot of guys that I feel like I have to draw up a bunch of plays for so they get eight shots a game.”

Balance has been important to the Mocs, especially given that Paris’ team only runs about seven players deep. In wins over UNC Asheville and UAB, Chattanooga had just seven players record more than three minutes.

Malachi Smith currently averages a double-double at 17.1 points and 11.2 rebounds per game, though his supporting cast is no joke. Five other Mocs are averaging between seven and 14 points a night. As a team, UTC ranks 70th nationally in 3-point percentage at 37.1 percent and 34th in free-throw percentage at 76.5 percent.

Even without a deep bench or preseason all-SoCon honoree, this rotation is making the necessary plays to win games.

“We have a skilled team. We’re versatile and play in a lot of different ways — sometimes we run a lot of sets, other times we don’t. We play freely,” Paris said.

Despite starting the year unbeaten, Chattanooga has yet to receive an AP Top 25 vote. As is often the case for mid-major programs, national notoriety will have to be earned. Picked seventh in the preseason SoCon poll, the Mocs are already taking the conference — and the rest of the nation — by surprise.