It’s not easy being a first-time head coach, but Matt McCall took the reins for the Chattanooga Mocs last season and not only excelled, but set a new standard.
A program-record 29 wins, two separate eight-game winning streaks and road wins over Georgia, Illinois and Dayton propelled the Mocs to the 2016 NCAA Tournament, where many gave McCall’s group a legitimate chance at knocking off fifth-seeded Indiana. Though the Hoosiers handled the Mocs 99-74, it wasn’t for lack of talent on Chattanooga’s side.
“I think one of the reasons Indiana had so much success against us was because of the amount of respect they had for us, for our team, for our personnel,” McCall told Today’s U.
That respect resulted in getting Indiana’s best shot, something McCall knows this year’s team will have to be prepared for. The Mocs are once again the favorites in the Southern Conference. They’re also considered to be one of the best “mid-major” teams in the nation.
“Every time we step on the line, we’re getting every team’s best shot,” he said. “We’re not sneaking up on anyone. Whatever’s written, whatever’s talked about, none of that matters. What matters is what happens between the lines.”
What will be written between now and the start of the regular season will be praise directed Chattanooga’s way. All three major college basketball preview magazines — Athlon, Lindy’s and Sporting News — have the Mocs as the favorites in the Southern Conference with Steve Forbes’ East Tennessee State squad finishing behind them.
Athlon, the only one to put a mock NCAA Tournament bracket in its issue, has Chattanooga as a No. 9 seed, three seed lines higher than its placement in 2016 and ahead of high-major teams Marquette, N.C. State, Michigan, Georgia, Seton Hall, Pittsburgh, Florida, Clemson, Oklahoma and SMU.
High expectation is an understatement for the Mocs. McCall is well aware of the pressure his team will face, knowing every team on their schedule will take them seriously, regardless of their standing in college basketball.
“We have to welcome that,” McCall said. “We can’t run and hide from that. I think that’ll be the biggest challenge, especially early.”
Early on, the Mocs will be put to the test on the road at Tennessee and North Carolina. In most cases when a smaller program plays road games at high-major opponents, it’s a way to make a solid payday for their program. If they win, awesome. That’s gravy.
For McCall, who grew up around family friend Steve Spurrier, just showing up for the game isn’t an option. He wants to win.
“Those games will be a great test for our basketball team to see where we’re at,” he said.
“Any time there’s competition, when the ball’s thrown up into the air and you’re keeping score, you’re trying to win. There’s no question about it. Coach Spurrier wrote a book and he said that he learned early on that if they’re keeping score, we’re trying to win. I don’t care whether we’re lining up against ourselves in practice, whether it’s an exhibition game or a scrimmage, we’re trying to win. Those two games early on will be a great test to find areas where we need to get better and improve.”
One of the keys for Chattanooga last season was balance — in the offense, in leadership, and in accountability. Winning another 29 games may be asking a bit much. However, it’s entirely possible Chattanooga, despite its losses to graduation, could be better this time around thanks to one key addition to the lineup.
Eight games into the 2015-’16 season, preseason conference player of the year Casey Jones, a senior, suffered an ankle injury in practice. It came at an inopportune time. Chattanooga was getting set to play a road game at Dayton, which hadn’t lost at home in almost two years. Jones missed that game, a Mocs win that put them in the national spotlight. Then he missed another. And another. Then a few more.
By February, Jones hadn’t progressed as he hoped in his rehab, which required him to work out his entire body below the waist. His work wasn’t putting him any closer to a return to action. He made the difficult decision to apply for a medical redshirt, effectively putting his senior year on hold. On Nov. 11 against the Volunteers, Jones will get a second chance at his final season in a Chattanooga uniform.
“When it first happened, my first thought was that it’s really over for me,” Jones said. “But it’s not really about me. Being on the sidelines and watching, it was really fun, honestly. Just being able to bring energy from the sideline and helping out the team, that’s what it really all about.”
Jones looked at the bright side of an unfortunate situation. While on the sidelines, he still acted as a senior leader, communicating to his teammates things he’d see on the court from a different perspective. In reality, Jones says watching on the sidelines was in many ways a benefit to him. It allowed him to encourage his teammates in a different way, point things out and being a spark of energy on the bench.
“Coach always made it known that I’m still a focal factor of the team, that my influence is still valuable,” said Jones. “He always told me to make sure I speak up so I was never silent on the side and let everybody know what I saw.”
At the time of his injury, Jones was leading the team in scoring (12.6 points/game), rebounding (6.5) and assists (3.1). Luckily, the Mocs were loaded with talented players, and his absence opened the door for others to step up, especially Tre’ McLean.
Last season, McLean nearly tripled his scoring output from the 2014-’15 season (4.3 to 12.1 points/game) and doubled his rebounding, assists and steals while increasing his shooting percentages in every category. McLean went from an unknown commodity to a first-team all-conference performer.
McLean, along with Greg Pryor and conference defensive player of the year Justin Tuoyo (now a back-to-back winner of the award), made up Chattanooga’s nucleus last season. Adding Jones to that group, as well as fellow seniors Chuck Ester and Johnathan Burroughs-Cook, makes Chattanooga one of the most experienced teams in the nation. Six seniors, all playing vital roles for a team, is a rare thing in college basketball.
“When I came here as a freshman it was one of the most inexperienced teams that I’ve ever played on and now we’re one of the oldest teams in the country,” said Jones. “We’ve got four fifth-year guys, two seniors. We’ve got a lot of experience.”
Jones, Tuoyo and McLean are also a rare group for another reason. In a landscape with a high rate of transfers, each of these three received their bachelors degrees this past May. To most, that means an opportunity to transfer to a bigger program, a better situation, and play immediately. Not these three.
“They could’ve transferred anywhere, not had to sit out and play right away,” McCall said.
“There were some BCS-level schools that I think would’ve taken them and were definitely inquiring about them and not one of them left. That’s so rare. People talk about the fifth-year rule, people talk about how it’s bad for our game, how it’s bad for mid-majors especially and I give our players a lot of credit because not one of them left. They were three first team all-league players and each one of them would’ve had an opportunity to play at a BCS-level school. For me as a coach, to have that type of group back, I’m not going to take a single day for granted coaching these guys.”
The Mocs were a balanced team last season, with five players averaging between 7.3 and 9.8 points behind team leaders McLean (12.1) and Tuoyo (11.1). That balance will be a key component to the 2016-’17 campaign, and it’ll start with the non-seniors filling in.
Both McCall and Jones stressed the focus on getting the younger players comfortable in expanded roles, with Jones and his fellow seniors taking it upon themselves to make sure it gets done. With five of the seniors likely to be starters and the other being the sixth man, it’ll come down to how the younger players fit in and take some of the pressure off the veterans for the Mocs to reach their potential.
What that potential is is unknown as this point. Jones says that if the team clicks at the right time, there isn’t a visible ceiling for this team. If somebody happens to get hurt this time around, Chattanooga will rely on playing as a unit rather than using a “Next Man Up” mantra, which McCall says is not the kind of coach he is.
“I don’t believe in that. I really don’t,” he said. “I think that when you have a team and when you have five guys out on the floor, whoever the guys are, and they play the game the right way and play for each other, you can win and you can win at a high level.”
Thus far in his coaching career, McCall has won at a high level. This season, the expectations are set for more success. Like most tourney teams, Chattanooga hopes it learned from its NCAA Tournament loss and will use that experience for its second act.
“The biggest thing that our guys took from getting pummeled in the NCAA Tournament against Indiana is that we have to get better. That’s the bottom line,” McCall said.
“Our guys are hungry for that and understanding that that’s something to be had, something that we’re working towards for the end of the season and it’s a process and we have to get better every day. We can’t go about getting to the end of the season in the same way that we did last year. We have to go a different route. There’s going to be different adversity along the way and we’ve got to handle that.”