Steve Forbes and his players constantly remind us of how Bucs fans are the best in the Southern Conference. With the conference tournament about to begin — and ETSU entering the event with a surprisingly fragile psyche — the team can use all the help it can get.
Back in the late 1980s and early ’90s, what was then called the Asheville Civic Center was packed full of blue and gold-clad ETSU fans. The place was rocking and ETSU won four consecutive SoCon championships.
This year’s team is after its second title in a row, and it could use that kind of support.
“I feel like Asheville is like our Freedom Hall,” ETSU guard Desonta Bradford said. “It’s right up the road. Hopefully we get a great crowd. I’m looking forward to it.”
It’s exactly 60 miles from downtown Johnson City to what is now U.S. Cellular Center in Asheville, North Carolina. A 6 p.m. tip-off for Saturday’s quarterfinal against either Samford or Chattanooga is as convenient as it gets. You’ll be back in Johnson City before 10 p.m., in time to get a good night’s rest before hopefully making the drive again for Sunday’s 6:30 p.m. semifinal.
There really are no excuses.
ETSU led the SoCon in attendance this season with an average of 4,440. That’s 1,200 more per game than any other team in the league.
“I’m very appreciative of all our fans,” Forbes said. “We have the best fans in the league by far.”
Forbes and his 23-8 team come into the tournament on a three-game losing streak, all at home. They’ve lost four of their last five games, a shocking development considering before the freefall began, the Bucs held the longest winning streak in the country at 16 games.
“I can’t spin it and say we’re in a great spot right now,” Forbes said. “That wouldn’t be truthful. They don’t feel very good about themselves.
“Maybe they put too much pressure on themselves. I can’t tell. They’re not as confident a group as they were two weeks ago. Maybe that’s because we lost at home and you lose your swagger a little bit.”
While the Bucs limp into Asheville, several teams seem to be peaking at the right time. Mercer has won eight consecutive games to salvage a tie for fourth place after a 3-7 start in conference play. Furman has won six in a row and UNCG’s winning streak is three. Only Chattanooga is on a longer losing streak than ETSU, at five.
“There are some teams that are going to feel better about themselves going in there than we are,” Forbes said. “But we could also put a chip on our shoulder and go in there like we have something to prove. We lost our last game last year and went in there and won. It can be done but we’ve got to improve.”
The funny thing is had the Bucs continued to win, they’d be in this exact situation, needing to win three games to make the NCAA tournament. They weren’t getting an at-large bid, so the whole season was coming down to this weekend in Asheville regardless.
The only difference would have been their confidence. Had they come in on a winning streak, that swagger, as Forbes called it, would have been evident. Instead, they have to prove themselves again.
“Can we win it? Sure,” Forbes said. “There’s nobody down there we can’t beat. We’ve beaten everybody in the league.”
That’s where the fans come in. In a tournament that appears winnable by five schools, even the smallest advantage could make a difference. Making sure the players on your team know you have their backs could go a long way.