CHATTANOOGA (WRCB) -- The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball team returns four starters from a roster that won the Southern Conference North Division a year ago, yet John Shulman feels like he's coaching a brand new team.
Many of the Mocs will have a new look when they hold their first official preseason practice Friday afternoon. A new off-season conditioning program, coupled with the desire of a few seniors to take better care of their bodies, has Shulman's bunch feeling fresher and healthier than ever.
"You say you know the old guys, but they've changed a bit," Shulman said Thursday. "Keegan (Bell) looks like Keegan of old, thank goodness. He looks like a basketball player and his body looks phenomenal.
"Ricky Taylor had a great summer. Chris Early continues to wow me with his maturity, and Omar Wattad has lost 22 pounds and looks like a normal player. It's the healthiest he's been in a long time."
The team spent much of the off-season working out with the UTC wrestling team, which was no easy task. But Wattad and Bell took the off-season work a bit further by completing reinventing their diet and daily routines.
"We've had the talent, and we've said every year that we can do it all, but we just have to buy in and commit," Bell said. "Our theme this year is 'It's not crowded on the extra mile,' and that's what we want to do.
"We really feel like this can be a truly special year if we all commit."
Wattad played through injuries most of last season, his first on the court at UTC after transferring from Georgetown. His commitment may be the most visible to the naked eye.
"I started eating better, running more and not eating late at night. I've lost about 20 pounds but added muscle with less body fat," he said. "I'm feeling healthy in general and ready to go."
In fact, Shulman said the Mocs are already off and running.
With so much experience returning, the veteran coach said he won't have to wait out the first few games of the season to find out what his team's strengths and weaknesses.
"We go into our first day of practice kind like we're already 1-4. We're not all fresh and new. We know what we need to work on," he said. "We need to do a much better job defending and we need to establish an inside presence.
"We don't need to work on anything offensively. We could put in nothing new and be just fine offensively."
Wattad added the newcomers, which includes a small group of freshman and eligible transfer post players Drazen Zlovaric and Z Mason, have had no trouble falling in line. Their smooth transition has helped the veterans keep moving at a brisk pace, hopefully making Friday's workout seem like anything but the season's first practice.
"The team and individual workouts, with how we're moving, our pace and our enthusiasm, it does have a midseason feel," Wattad said. "Knowing what we have to work on is key. We'll be ready, we're really excited to get started."