CHATTANOOGA (WRCB) -- Z Mason didn't look his best during a light workout Monday morning at McKenzie Arena, but that didn't matter to University of Tennessee at Chattanooga head coach John Shulman.
Considering the brief session was the sophomore forward's first pain-free court-time in nearly a month, it was enough to put a smile on Shulman's face.
"He looked a little rusty, as you would expect, but he moved well," Shulman said before Tuesday's afternoon practice. "He wasn't cringing. He wasn't making funny faces. He looked like Z again."
Playing without pain is the first step for the 6-foot-5 Ole Miss transfer, who's been nothing more than a bystander during one of the worst stretches in program history.
"I'm just excited to get back to playing. I've been gone way to long. I missed about seven games. It's just been brutal," he said.
The timing couldn't have been worse when Mason dislocated his kneecap at UNC-Greensboro in mid-January.
He had career-highs with 17 points and 10 rebounds against Wofford on January 12, then followed with 11 points and seven boards in a loss at Samford two days later.
"I was finally in shape. I was finally starting to play how I wanted to play, how I knew I could play and how the team needed me to play. Then I got knocked back down by this injury. That was the most frustrating part," Mason said.
He said he felt a "tweak" in his knee during an 81-72 loss at UNCG on January 19. He received treatment from team athletic trainers but remained in the lineup for two more games, including an 18-point performance in a one-point loss at Elon.
Then came the realization that the injury was far worse than originally expected.
"It just kept swelling it was really painful," Mason said. "We finally got an MRI on it a week later because it really kept me from exploding to the basket and limited my game."
The injury and subsequent bone bruise was the discovered, putting Mason on crutches for the following two weeks.
UTC had won seven of ten games to improve their record to 9-10 overall heading Greensboro. Ten games later they've fallen to 10-19, losing six of the seven games without Mason in the lineup
"He means more to us than 12 points and six rebounds a night. He gives us confidence," Shulman said. "He can block shots and he can get up and get rebounds other guys on this team can't get.
"Where do we go at the end of a game? We go inside to Z. That's where we were going when we had success, and then he left and we haven't had a lot of success since."
His return provided an immediate boost to a team searching for hope.
"It was great to see him out there Monday morning," said senior point guard Keegan Bell. "The energy he brings. The physicality he brings, and honestly, the shot-blocking that he brings is all huge.
"It is exciting to see him back out there again. It was fun."
Shulman said coaches won't hold Mason back in the final two games of the regular season this week. UTC travels to Furman on Thursday before wrapping up the regular season at home against Samford on Saturday.
Shulman said there's always a fine line when it comes to working an injured player back into the lineup, but it's important for Mason to get as much "real court-time as possible" before next weekend's Southern Conference Tournament.
"He's either going to be ready for it or he won't," Shulman said. "We're going to throw him right in there and we'll learn real quick how he'll be able to do."
Mason isn't worried. He's having no second thoughts about his return being too soon. He's ready to play, and he hopes he can be the spark the Mocs have needed to turn around one of the most disappointing season's in program history.
"I tried to come back before and just couldn't do it. Ask the coaches. I tried when it wasn't ready," Mason said. "Now I'm more confident in the strength of my knee. I'm ready to get back out here with the guys and get this run going."
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