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Chattanooga should be the Southern Conference favorite in 2021-22

Lamont Paris has his best team as head coach of the Mocs.

NCAA Basketball: Chattanooga at Virginia Tech Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

Chattanooga was the unanimous pick to claim the Southern Conference football title at the league’s preseason media day last week, and the Mocs could have similar fortune when the basketball coaches convene in Asheville in October.

Over the past couple of seasons, Chattanooga has stockpiled transfers (Malachi Smith, Josh Ayeni, Darius Banks, and KC Hankton), so it only makes sense that the Mocs would procure another in 2021, this time former Central Florida center Avery Diggs.

That would have been enough to appease most Mocs fans, however Chattanooga wasn’t finished bringing in talent via the transfer portal. It could be argued, at least on paper, that this club is shaping up to be as talented as Chattanooga’s 2016 NCAA Tournament squad.

As good as the returners already are for the Mocs entering the 2021-22 season, they went out and added Kansas transfer Silvio De Sousa, which probably alleviated any doubts as to who the media and coaches would tab as the preseason favorite.

In 18 games for the Jayhawks during his junior season, De Sousa averaged 2.6 PPG and 2.8 RPG in a little over eight minutes per contest. De Sousa sat out the 2018-19 season, however, as a freshman in 2017-18, was a solid piece to Kansas’s Final Four puzzle, as he ended up averaging 4.0 PPG and 3.7 RPG in 20 games.

Unfortunately, as talented as De Sousa may be, his career has been overshadowed by his other troubles.

Most notably was his role in a January 2020 altercation that quickly developed into a bench-clearing brawl against arch-rival Kansas State. De Sousa committed a hard foul at the end of that game and stood over the Kansas State player he clobbered. The benches then cleared and De Sousa was seen picking up a chair, seemingly ready to use it to strike.

Following the game, head coach Bill Self suspended De Sousa indefinitely and he missed the final 12 games of the regular season.

The native of Angola announced he was leaving the Kansas basketball program just prior to the 2020-21 season, however his trouble wasn’t over. He was caught up in an altercation outside a Lawrence bar, and was charged with aggravated battery. That altercation took place in mid-October of 2020, and De Sousa has a court date slated for Aug. 2.

The major positive is that De Sousa graduated from Kansas, managing to stick to his academic school work, despite all the off-the-court turmoil. He’ll get a much-needed new start at Chattanooga.

In addition to the newcomers, the Mocs welcome the return of seven of their top nine scorers back from a year ago. After struggling in his first couple seasons to create cohesion and continuity, head coach Lamont Paris heads into a season seemingly settled for the first time since arriving in the Scenic City.

By settled, I mean the Mocs have the kind of toughness, grit, talent and depth that the 12-time league champions have seen so many seasons in the past.

The Mocs return four starters for the 2021-22 season, including David Jean-Baptiste, who helps bridge a large gap in Mocs basketball, as he is the only remaining player from Paris’s first team as head coach in 2017-18. In Paris’s first season, the Mocs won only 10 games — tied for the fewest ever in Chattanooga’s Division I era.

Needless to say, Jean-Baptiste has seen it all during his time as a Moc, and he will finish out his career as the most experienced Mocs player in program history, thanks to the extra year awarded as a result of COVID-19.

Midway through last season, it appeared as though Jean-Baptiste would leave Chattanooga. He entered the transfer portal for a couple of weeks, shocking everyone, only to return two weeks later in time for Chattanooga’s SoCon opener against Furman.

He’ll once again be the fulcrum for the Mocs this coming season, and will almost assuredly enter the 2021-22 campaign as a first-team all-conference guard.

In 2020-21, Jean-Baptiste garnered All-SoCon honors for a second-straight season, and finished as the team’s second-leading scorer, averaging 16.1 PPG and 3.3 RPG last season, while leading the club in made three-pointers.

Other starters returning to the fold will be preseason Player of the Year candidate Smith (16.8 PPG, 8.8 RPG), 6-5 guard Jamaal Walker (5.1 PPG, 1.5 RPG), redshirt senior guard and ultimate glue guy A.J. Caldwell (6.4 PPG, 4.7 RPG), and junior power forward Ayeni (5.5 PPG, 2.3 RPG).

Smith was Chattanooga’s most talented player a year ago and is a double-double machine. While most figure it will be The Citadel forward Hayden Brown to be chosen as the preseason SoCon Player of the Year in October, you’d be wise not to sleep on Smith. He was sensational last season, averaging a double-double over the first two-plus months.

The Mocs will also return the SoCon’s version of Tayshaun Prince in the form of Hankton (8.7 PPG, 5.5 RPG), as well as Banks (11.2 PPG, 4.0 RPG), who began to emerge as reliable scorer for the Mocs.

For now, at least, the Mocs are my team to beat heading into the 2021-22 campaign.