The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga basketball team sported black Nike shoes for the first time this season on Thursday.
The Mocs beat Western Carolina on Thursday. Then they beat Appalachian State on Saturday to complete a two-game sweep of the Southern Conference North Division leaders.
The shoes have Nike ‘swoosh’ and a little bit of shine.
But they may as well be steel-toed clodhoppers considering the Mocs beat Western Carolina 80-67 and Appalachian State 85-80 with a workman-like approach.
“If ya’ll didn’t notice, we wear black shoes now and those are our work boots,” sophomore Ricky Taylor said. “So we’re going to work every game and everybody is buying into to coach (John) Shulman’s philosophy. So when we do what he says, then we have success.
“I believe all the guys like the work boots.”
The Mocs had lost four straight games including three on the road and blew a 16-point at UNC Greensboro and a 14-point lead at Elon during their excursion.
They returned home as underdogs and beat both of the teams ahead of them in the Southern Conference North Division and are two games behind WCU for the automatic bye in the SoCon tournament.
“I told (associate head) coach (Dave) Conrady to get black shoes because we have to go to work,” Shulman said. “We have formed our own identity.”
It’s one Shulman has stamped on the team himself with just eight regular-season games remaining. It’s based on his coaching philosophy that defense and rebounding wins championships.
Some form of it has worked during his five full seasons as head coach at UTC with two NCAA tournament appearances as proof.
“I put some work boots on them and we’re going to go to work,” Shulman said. “Guys want to play and now I’m holding them accountable on the defensive end and for rebounding.
“Some guys are playing less minutes, and we’re getting more productivity.”
Only walk-on Drew Baker didn’t play against the Catamounts when 11 different players scored and he was the only one not to leave the bench against the Mountaineers.
UTC’s bench proved to be important when reserve point guard Jasper Williams buried a key 3-pointer with 58 seconds to go against ASU.
“That’s the thing about Jasper… if I need to go gambling one day I’m may bring Jasper because he’s got ice-water running through him,” Shulman joked. “He’d just missed three free throws, and he didn’t care because, he always thinks the next one is going in.”
Senior captain Ty Patterson has noticed a difference in attitude since the Mocs returned home from the Carolinas and held a players-only meeting.
“We’re making more effort in these two games than we did in the three on the road,” said Patterson, who had 19 points against WCU and 18 against ASU. “We’re all starting to trust each other. We know that if they drive the ball baseline, we know there’s going to be help.
“It’s like five people guarding one person and if we keep that up, we’re going to have success.”
Junior college transfer Ridge McKeither has responded to the new team attitude by changing his own ‘Me-First’ outlook on the team.
The former All-American at North Dakota State College of Science scored 15 points against WCU and 18 points against ASU to go with a career-high 12 rebounds.
Shulman ran the first two plays of Saturday’s game to get McKeither the ball on the block and he delivered with two inside buckets.
“There’s a lot of us buying in and we’re having fun doing it so that’s another plus,” McKeither said. “We have a lot of guys coming together in a new family. Trust was a big issue coming in but now we have it worked out because that sort of thing takes time.”
Time is starting get short with only eight games left in the regular season and the Charleston swing to play the College of Charleston and The Citadel looming this week.
But a new mentality, a new gimmick is always better late than never.
“Last year it was the ‘Big Ball Winning Plays,’ and this year it’s work boots,” Shulman said, referring to a plan of putting a plastic ball in a big box for every winning play the Mocs made in the last five minutes of a game last season. “Every team needs something different.”