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Chattanooga seeks bid to Big Dance

In his fifth season at the helm, Lamont Paris looks to take college basketball’s oldest roster to the Field of 68

NCAA BASKETBALL: FEB 06 Oakland at Cleveland State
Chattanooga is two wins away from the NCAA Tournament.
Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When Lamont Paris took the head coaching job at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, the Mocs were the youngest team in the country. Five years later, as Paris seeks his first NCAA tournament appearance as a head coach, the Southern Conference regular season champions are the oldest team in college basketball.

Guided by the Southern Conference Player of the Year, Malachi Smith, and All-SoCon Second Team selection, David Jean-Baptiste, Chattanooga (24-7, 14-4 Southern) claimed its first regular season title since 2016.

Malachi Smith led the SoCon and ranked 17th nationally in scoring (20.3 points per contest), while David Jean-Baptiste was second on the team with 14.5 points per contest. The Mocs led the conference in field goal percentage (47%) and scoring margin (+10.2).

The use of the transfer portal proved successful for Lamont Paris. Chattanooga’s tandem of Darius Banks (James Madison) and Silvio DeSousa (Kansas) provided valuable minutes in the starting rotation, while Josh Ayeni (South Alabama) is an important contributor off the bench. DeSousa led the Mocs and ranked sixth in the SoCon in rebounding with 6.8 boards per game, while Ayeni brought six years of college basketball experience as the nation’s oldest player at 25.

With the returning talent in the Volunteer State, Chattanooga’s potential as an NCAA Tournament team was evident in the non-conference slate. The Moccasins stormed out to a 9-1 start to begin the season, highlighted by a 56-54 victory at the hostile Siegel Center against VCU.

Following back-to-back losses against Ohio Valley Conference opponents Belmont and Murray State, Paris’ squad rounded out non-conference play with a 77-65 victory against Middle Tennessee State.

As the Mocs sat atop the Southern Conference with a 14-4 conference record, they began their quest for an NCAA Tournament bid in Asheville, N.C. Chattanooga defeated No. 9 The Citadel in the quarterfinals and face Wofford in the semifinals.

As the oldest team in the country, the experience and maturity of the roster provides Chattanooga with the opportunity to add more hardware to the trophy case, but it will be easier said than done.

A trio of conference foes, will contend for the conference championship in Asheville and look to steal a bid to the field of 68.

Furman (20-11, 12-6 Southern) finished second in the standings behind the Mocs, while Samford (20-10, 10-8 Southern) and Wofford (18-12, 10-8 Southern) tied for third.

The Paladins pose the biggest threat to Chattanooga’s conference hopes, coming into the tournament as winners of three of their last four contests.

SoCon Defensive Player of the Year, Jalen Slawson, paced the Paladins on the defensive end and ranked fourth in the conference in rebounding with 7.6 boards per game.

The senior duo of Slawson (14.5 points per game) and Mike Bothwell (15.4 points per game) powered the SoCon’s second best offense. Fifth-year senior Alex Hunter averaged 13.7 points per outing and bolstered the offensive attack in Greenville.

Samford will debut in Asheville as the three seed in the conference tournament. Ques Glover propelled the Bulldogs, ranking third in scoring (19.1 points per game) and second in assists (4.4 assists per game) in the Southern Conference.

Jermaine Marshall was third in the conference in rebounding (8.1 rebounds per contest), while averaging 12.8 points per game.

The Bulldogs will look to replicate their February performances against Furman and Chattanooga, as they defeated both opponents by eight points in Homewood, Ala.

The Wofford Terriers will look to pull off the upset in a potential semifinal matchup with the Mocs.

BJ Mack was the catalyst in Spartanburg, S.C., averaging 16.4 points per game and 5.9 rebounds per game. Mack’s offensive output was good for fifth in the SoCon.

With a trip to the NCAA Tournament on the line, Chattanooga and Furman appear to be on a crash course for their third meeting of the season. After winning by a basket on their home floor, Chattanooga swept the season series with a six-point victory in Greenville.

As the Mocs proved they were the best team in the Southern Conference in the regular season, I expect them to live up to the expectations in Asheville.

The abundance of experience and the proven track record over the course of the season will propel Coach Paris’ squad to a conference championship. Although beating the same team three times in one season is a tall task, the balance and depth will help bring out the brooms against Furman.

Despite a close contest that will see the Paladins leading at the half, I expect Chattanooga to punch its ticket to the Big Dance in the form of a 73-68 victory Monday night.