CHATTANOOGA (WRCB) -- John Shulman is certainly far from satisfied with his team's overall record this season, but he can't help but be a little pleased by the progress it's made.
The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga enters this weekend's Southern Conference Tournament coming off a disappointing season-finale showing at Appalachian State, but Shulman is excited about what made that outing so disappointing.
"I was pleasantly surprised to have this team playing for a first-round tournament the final weekend of the regular season," said Shulman, whose team could have clinched the SoCon's fourth seed by beating the Mountaineers. "It's been a crazy, crazy year getting to this point, but I've been proud of them for continuing to battle.
"We have gotten better."
A lot better.
Chattanooga started the season 2-8 overall, though it's easy to see why.
The Mocs leaned heavily on five true freshman this season opposite just one healthy senior, which isn't exactly a recipe for success for a team that faced five 20-win teams in the season's first ten games.
"It was too hard of a schedule for a bunch of young kids," said Shulman, pointing to the success of early-season opponents Louisiana Tech (26-3), Eastern Kentucky (23-8), Mercer (21-13), Davidson (23-7) and Kansas (26-4). "We survived it, and we still finished better than we did last year."
The Mocs rallied to play above .500 in their final 21 games, going 11-10 the rest of the way to finish 13-18 overall in the regular season and 8-10 in the SoCon.
Both marks were better than those posted a year ago by a team that featured four returning starters and six seniors.
"We were battle-tested by the middle of the season," sophomore guard Ronrico White said of the tough start. "If we had played an easier schedule, when we hit adversity during the season, we wouldn't have been able to handle it."
And there was plenty of adversity.
After losing senior point guard Dontay Hampton to an ACL tear over the summer, the Mocs lost him for good when he tore the same knee ligament in January after just four games back.
Fellow starters Lance Stokes and Casey Jones combined to miss more than 30 games with broken bones, and true freshman point guard Farad Cobb -- the only true point guard on the team after Hampton's injury -- was dismissed from the team in February.
The result was the Mocs turning early and often to inexperienced players, including SoCon All-Freshman selection Gee McGhee, who wound up leading UTC in minutes played.
"The competition and adversity helped us as a team," he said. "It made us better and smarter by putting us in different situations."
But it didn't suddenly make them older.
Like most young teams, Chattanooga was consistently inconsistent this season.
The Mocs lost five games by at least 20 points and endured a stretch of seven straight games in which they trailed by double-digits in the first half.
There were a few highs as well, including a double-digit lead on the road at Kansas, a record-setting 18-point comeback against Appalachian State and an upset of North Division champ Elon.
However, Shulman could never predict when the next step back would occur.
"It's kind of like having children. Once you think your child has matured, they do something stupid again," Shulman said. "I've thought a couple times we're about ready to hit it, then they become children again.
"I know they can drive everybody crazy."
Shulman hopes maybe they'll drive the rest of the league crazy in Asheville, but the truth is he really doesn't know what to expect from his youngsters in a tournament setting.
McGhee and his fellow freshman will be getting their first taste of the make-or-break SoCon setting, so the focus is on trying to keep the gameplan simple.
"I don't want to overwhelm them so much," said White, who played in last year's SoCon Tournament as a freshman. "They were in state tournaments and stuff in high school, so they've been in a setting like this before.
"I just want them to be free out there and play the game they know how to play."
And if that happens, maybe there will be one last highlight run in an up-and-down learning season.
"You say the stove is hot. How hot? Really hot, but sometimes the kids have to touch that stove to figure out how hot," Shulman said. "Tournament games are a different animal, especially in a one-bid league, and older teams usually do better than younger teams.
"But we'll see. We'll have them prepared to play and have them prepared for that kind of atmosphere."