As the Southern Conference prepares to get underway in Asheville on Friday evening, there is one lingering question that seems bigger than the rest.
Which team is Chattanooga?
Are they the team that beat Dayton, Georgia and Illinois all on the road? Are they the team that started 11-1 in SoCon play and that won road conference games against ETSU, Mercer, Wofford and UNCG?
Are they the team that struggled to a 4-2 finish, including close wins over VMI and Samford in their last two contests?
Are they the team that won the SoCon Tournament in 2005 and 2009, and many years in the 90s?
Are they the team that hasn't advanced past the quarterfinals of the tournament since 2009 and has lost six straight tournament games?
The Mocs may not know themselves.
Sure, there were struggles in the last years of John Shulman. The club was not particularly good in 2010, 2012 and 2013. In 2011, on their home floor, the Mocs were considered one of the favorites to win the tournament. Instead, they lost their first game in the quarterfinals, an upset at the hands of Furman.
In 2014, Will Wade rejuvenated the program. The program looked to be revived. They got the second seed in the 2014 season. That was probably an overachieving performance, but the team was upset by Georgia Southern in the quarterfinal loss. A year ago, the Mocs went 15-3 in SoCon play and again gained the second seed in the tournament. The Mocs were legitimately a very good team. Still, the Mocs could not help but lose in the quarterfinals to last place Furman. Yes, the Paladins wound up coming within a breath of winning the championship game, but that still was a colossal disappointment by the Mocs.
Now, they race towards the 2016 tournament. The Mocs lost at Furman, back before anyone realized just how good the Paladins were. They did not always look great against the lesser opponents in their out of conference schedule, like Kennesaw State. In the last six games, the Mocs have played poorly on the road against Western Carolina in a loss, beaten ETSU, crushed VMI, lost at home to UNCG, before winning a tight home game against Samford and a nail biter against VMI on the road.
That's not exactly the perfect way to head into the tournament.
This Mocs team does not have Casey Jones, the preseason SoCon Player of the Year. They replaced him with a ton of balance on the offensive side of the ball. Tre McLean, a defensive specialist a year ago, has turned into a great all around player. Justin Tuoyo has always been great at blocking shots in the paint, but he continues to have a height advantage on most other SoCon big men and use that on the offensive end. Eric Robertson is a great shooter. Greg Pryor is a true leader with grit and determination at point. Chuck Ester does a lot of little things as well to help the team win. Dee Oldham, Jonathan Burroughs-Cook and Duke Ethridge have been excellent off the bench.
This is a very good team. They have played their best basketball when they have been playing in the biggest games. Wins at Georgia, Dayton and Illinois prove that. Wins at ETSU and Mercer and home wins against Wofford and Furman in a ten day stretch helped establish that. Two thoroughly dominating wins against VMI and The Citadel helped to stamp that.
So what does all that mean for the tournament?
On Saturday, the Mocs will play either Samford or VMI. That is far from an easy win for this team. Samford has played a bunch of close games this year. VMI just played down to a last second shot on Monday night. Combine that with the pressure of not having won in six tournament games, and the expectations could be weighing heavy on this program. They've been playing recently like a team weighed down by pressure.
But a win on Saturday could open the doors and get the team to play loose again. The game on Saturday is the key game for the Mocs. A win there eases some of the mounting pressure the team has been feeling, even if it is just for one game.
The rest of the conference is looking up at Chattanooga in the standings. Teams like ETSU, Furman, Wofford, Western Carolina and UNCG all think they have a decent chance at winning the trophy on Monday night.
But all of their chances may well rest on finding the answer to the biggest question. Which team IS Chattanooga?