Bucs don’t feel like underdogs

Joe Avento • Updated Mar 14, 2017 at 6:41 PM

ORLANDO, Fla. — The East Tennessee State University basketball team arrived in the Sunshine State on Tuesday ready for its NCAA Tournament game against Florida. And the Bucs weren’t acting like underdogs.

“No way. We don’t feel like underdogs,” ETSU senior guard A.J. Merriweather said. “We know what Florida’s capable of, but we’ve been together all year and we know what we’re capable of too. We’re not underestimating anything.

“A lot of people are picking us to win. Florida might feel like the underdog. They’ve lost two in a row so I know they’ll come in hungry.”

The Bucs embarked on their trip Tuesday afternoon, leaving the Minidome around 2 p.m. An enthusiastic crowd braved chilly and blustery conditions to wish them well as they boarded the bus that would take them to Tri-Cities Regional Airport.

“This is no surprise,” Merriweather said. “Like I said all year, we have the best fans. I knew they’d come out and support us.”

The Bucs bring a 27-7 record into Thursday’s first-round game, scheduled for 3:10 p.m. at Amway Center. It’s being televised on TruTV.

The winner gets to hang around Orlando and take on the winner of Virginia-UNC Wilmington game on Saturday.

At the airport, when the entire traveling party had boarded the team’s charter, ETSU coach Steve Forbes had to step off the plane so he could be on the Paul Finebaum radio show. Forbes had already done Jim Rome’s show as well as several other national programs.

Forbes’ segment with Finebaum was broadcast over the plane’s speakers and the coach received some hearty applause when he returned.

It’s safe to say, the entire country now knows ETSU is in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in seven years. Thanks to the confidence Forbes has instilled in his team and its fans, everyone has high expectations.

Although the Bucs are seeded 13th in the East Regional, many national commentators have picked them to beat the fourth-seeded Gators.

“When I first heard that, I said ‘Man, that’s crazy,’ ” Merriweather said. “But when I look back at all the work we’ve put in, it came true.”

Forbes says the Bucs just can’t get too caught up in the atmosphere of participating in college basketball’s biggest event.

“We just have to be who we are,” he said. “A lot of times teams get into a big situations and they try to do too much, more than they’re capable of. We just have to play like we know how.”

Florida, which finished second in the Southeastern Conference, has lost three of its last six games and comes in 24-8.

Even before Forbes scouted the Gators, he had a pretty high opinion of them. Watching a team beat Kentucky can do that.

“I remember watching the game and going ‘Man, they are really good,’ ” Forbes said. “Our teams are a lot alike. We can’t allow them to turn us over. If they turn us over, we’ll have a tough day.”

The Bucs practiced on Tuesday before the trip. They’ll take part in an open practice at the Amway Center, home of the Orlando Magic, on Wednesday before doing the pregame news conferences.

“It’s an exciting time,” Forbes said. “This is what it’s all about.”

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