SoCon Hoops 2021-22: Chattanooga hosts Western Carolina in a rare four-game week

RS-Junior guard A.J. Caldwell/photo courtesy of Chattanooga athletics

Western Carolina (9-16, 3-9 SoCon) at Chattanooga (20-5, 10-2 SoCon)

Date and location: Feb. 9, 2022/Chattanooga, Tenn

Venue: The Roundhouse/McKenzie Arena (10,995)

Last Time They Met: Western Carolina 70, Chattanooga 59 (Jan. 12, 2022/Ramsey Center/Cullowhee, N.C.)

Series: 99th meeting/Chattanooga leads 68-30

Preview: Fresh off what was one of the most thrilling mid-major basketball games of the 2021-22 season, Chattanooga will look to regroup and find a measure of revenge when it squares off against Western Carolina on the Southern Conference Wednesday night in a rare league mid-week clash.

It’s one of two games slated for tonight, with another clash being especially important, as league teams start to fight for positioning heading down the stretch towards Asheville, as Wofford (14-10, 6-6 SoCon) will be at the Pete Hanna Center to take on Samford (14-9, 4-7 SoCon) at the Pete Hanna Center, with tipoff slated for 8 p.m. EST.

An undermanned UTC team headed to Macon to face Mercer for the second time in a 48-hour span to take on the Mercer Bears this past Monday night, leaving with a 74-72 win over the Bears in overtime, courtesy of a corner buzzer-beating triple from Mr. old reliable literally in A.J. Caldwell (5.6 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 2.4 APG).

If you’ll remember it’s been a little over a year to the day since the Mocs went into arch-rival East Tennessee State and picked up what was a 67-65 thriller, as he three with one second remaining helped the Mocs snap an 11-game series losing skid to the Bucs.

Monday evening already saw UTC playing short-handed without the services of Silvio De Sousa (11.5 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 1.2 BPG) and K.C. Hankton (3.8 PPG, 2.7 RPG) due to minor injuries, with Hankton returning to the rotation last time out against the Bears, while De Sousa could be in the lineup tonight, but my guess is that the timetable for his return will be about the time the Mocs’ bus driver literally parks the bus behind Timmons Arena for Saturday’s monster league clash.

That said, like the first matchup with Mercer in Macon just a little over 48 hours earlier, it forced an uncommon performer in terms of offensive production to emerge, which has almost become a theme at times for the Mocs during league play this season.

Senior post Josh Ayeni (4.5 PPG, 2.6 RPG) was the player called upon to do that in the first matchup in a 48-hour span between the Mocs and Bears to deliver in a big moment when the Mocs needed him, as his career-high 18 points helped the league’s leading team hold off the Bears, 77-68, in Macon.

In Monday night’s gritty road win for the Mocs it was Avery Diggs (4.9 PPG, 2.2 RPG), who turned up and showed up big for the Mocs, as his 22 points were a big reason the Mocs were able to pull off the gutsy road win, as he posted a career-high 21 points in a game the Mocs had to battle from behind nearly the entire way.

The Mocs were similarly able to find that extra scoring punch for the first time during conference play this season just after the first matchup between the Catamounts and Mocs this season, which saw UTC drop a 70-59 setback to Western Carolina.

After playing without one of the best guards in mid-major basketball against the Catamounts in Cullowhee, in veteran David-Jean Baptiste (15.0 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 2.5 APG, 1.2 SPG), the Mocs found a way to get guys like Grant Ledford (4.2 PPG, 1.6 RPG), the aforementioned Caldwell, and wing Darius Banks (7.4 PPG, 4.8 RPG) to step up and find some offensive firepower in what was a thrilling 71-69 win over Furman in front a rowdy crowd on-hand at the Roundhouse to see the win.

In that win over Furman, it was the first time we as on-lookers in the media got a chance to see just how deep this Mocs team truly is, with Ledford coming off the bench to chip in 16 points, while added an important six points, hitting two key threes in the win over the Paladins.

It is interesting that Caldwell ended up returning to the starting lineup for the first time since that Furman game in Monday night’s road win over Mercer. And the senior more than delivered.

But this team will go as its main engine goes, and that main engine is, of course, Malachi Smith (20.6 PPG, 6.4 RPG), who is the leader in the clubhouse for SoCon regular-season player of the year should the Mocs hold on down the stretch to capture its first regular-season league crown since the 2015-16 season.

In my opinion, this game will be important for Chattanooga for one main reason, and that is–all jokes aside–because of “load management.”

This time of year is when legs start to become heavy during a basketball season, but the basketball gods never distribute depth equally, which is a luxury the Mocs will need both tonight and in Saturday’s monumental clash at Furman.

Getting off to a fast start and a big lead might be especially important Monday night, as the Mocs have that game against Furman Saturday, which will mark its fourth game in a seven-day span. Emphasizing that point even further is the fact that the Mocs needed an extra five minutes to get the final push it needed to overcome Mercer.

That being said, this offers the Mocs a chance to have a nice trial run for Asheville, as it offers a chance to prepare for the dreaded three games in three days scenario–prepare the rotation accordingly.

Smith is as good as any guard in mid-major or power-five basketball, and when he isn’t, Jean-Baptiste has usually been there to show is talents off to rest of the league, and posted a career-high 31 points 10 days ago in the Mocs loss at Samford.

The 59 points by UTC in the first clash with the Catamounts marked the second-lowest points total of the season, bested only by the 56 points the Mocs used to gut out its biggest win (at least according to the NET rankings) of the season, in a 56-54 road triumph at Atlantic 10 power VCU.

The 31.5% shooting effort by the Mocs without the services of Jean-Baptiste, which included a woeful 4-of-25 effort from three-point range, is easily the worst shooting effort of the season. The only other game in which the Mocs have failed to shoot the ball below 45% is in the road win at The Citadel, which saw the Mocs connect on just 41.9% of its shots in a 75-62 road win.

The Catamounts are a matchup problem in some ways if you look at recent history in the series between the two, with most of those games being down-to-the-wire type finishes.

The one outlier, of course, is the last meeting between the two, with the Catamounts, which saw the Mocs post their worst shooting night the season.

The Catamounts what its like to shoot the ball poorly, posting just just a 34% shooting effort (18-of-53), including an ice-cold 20.8% (5-of-24) shooting effort from three. As you might expect, those two shooting percentages led to a season-low 49 points in what was a 19-point, 68-49, home setback to the Spartans.

That said, playing the Spartans is discouraging enough, but having to turn around and playing one of the league’s other best defensive squads–especially on the road against the preseason favorite and a team that the Catamounts blasted in Cullowhee earlier this season–is probably not how first-year head coach Justin Gray would have drawn it up, however, COVID-19 changed everyone’s plans.

In terms of how it affected scheduling around the league, the pandemic was certainly no respecter of league regular-season title or tournament seeding aspirations, but then again I guess that’s how it is now. Everyone has to adjust.

For Chattanooga, it could turn out to be a built-in luxury, as UTC will play three of its final four league games in the friendly confines of McKenzie Arena after Sat–a place the Mocs are 10-1 and 5-0 against league foes this season–following its trip to Furman Saturday.

The only road game remaining on the schedule after Saturday’s test at Furman will come on the road on Feb. 23 at Freedom Hall, as the Mocs head to Freedom Hall to take on East Tennessee State–a team the Mocs opened league play by charting a 30-point, 81-51, win against.

The truth is, the Mocs have lived up to the preseason hype coming into the season. But the margin of how much better the Mocs are than other teams heading to Asheville next month isn’t maybe like what ETSU was in 2019-20, or perhaps the better example being like Wofford was in its historic run to the league regular-season and tournament crowns during the 2018-19 season.

The Catamounts are battling to stay out the dreaded Thursday night tournament play-in round. Getting a win tonight at McKenzie will require a herculean effort. Especially when you consider the Catamounts are just 6-38 in the Scenic City all-time.

If Western is going to do it, they must shoot an extraordinary percentage from three-point range. It will take 12 or more threes tonight for Gray’s club to be able to put itself in position to win a game like this away from Cullowhee.

With a player of Nicholas Robinson’s (15.4 PPG, 7.4 RPG) ability, the chances the Catamounts could actually pull off something unthinkable like a win at the Roundhouse is all the more possible.

Robinson is the reigning SoCon Player of the Week after posting a 37-point effort in a home win over ETSU last 10 days ago, while finishing the week with a triple double of 19 points, 13 rebounds and dishing out 10 helpers en route to capturing SoCon Player of the Week honors.

When the Catamounts have hit it big this season, Robinson has been able to get much needed scoring help from teammates, like center Joe Petrakis (8.4 PPG, 3.6 RPG), who offers a similar challenge to that of say Felipe Haase of Mercer did or a guard like Vonterrius Woolbright (9.9 PPG, 6.1 RPG) off the bench. In fact, it was Woolbright’s 14 points and 11 boards that actually proved vital in the first meeting with the Mocs this season.

Tyler Harris (7.3 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 1.1 APG), who is the only holdover from the Mark Prosser era that logged a big role in the Catamounts rotation, has been a streaky long-range shooter all season, but did manage to go 6-for-11 from long range in an 18-point effort in what was a recent road loss at VMI. To me, Harris is a player that, in many ways, is the key that turns the ignition for the Catamounts.

Although not always the case, if he’s playing well, the Catamounts are usually in position to win basketball games. Harris was held to just six points in the first meeting between the Catamounts and Mocs this season.

For Gray’s Cats, the lack of a true inside presence outside of Petrakis has caught up with Western Carolina more often than not this season. With that said, if the Catamounts can limit a team to 31.5% shooting from the field for the game, as it did in the first meeting between the two last month in Cullowhee, it nullifies the need to have that presence on the offensive end.

Despite their overall experience due to the transfer portal, the assessment that often is striking for Western Carolina this season is that I think something that Lamont Paris can relate to when he arrived at Chattanooga, or even the other two new head coaches in the league this season when they arrived to be the head coaches at ETSU and UNCG, respectively, this season.

That is rather than saying have this is the identity and this is who we will be as a basketball team as long as I am here, its to take a look at the talent returning and taking the pieces you have and using their strengths to your advantage.

Perhaps no one has done that as well to this point in year one than Mike Jones at UNCG, who knows his team is good enough defensively to give them a change to “ugly up” the game enough to win ball games. It’s brilliant coaching in my opinion.

When Paris arrived at Chattanooga, it wasn’t all too much different that what happened in Cullowhee with the mass exodus prior to Gray taking the reins of the program. He was left to pick up and put back together a mess left by Matt McCall in more ways than one.

In that respect, Paris was patient and he built it into a formidable program. It’s why I have so much respect for guys like Paris, Jones, Gray and to a major extent Desmond Oliver at ETSU, who has to do most of his managing of that same thing in-season–Not easy!

Gray went out and got what he did, and put together a team, which probably isn’t designed to win the league, but is one that can keep the Catamounts in most any game because of the potential for a big night from long range. That, to me, is also brilliant foresight for such a young head coach in my estimation.

That said, I think Chattanooga will coast to a revenge win tonight in front of the home folks before heading to Timmons Arena Saturday for a clash with Furman.

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