The East Tennessee State basketball team will play the underdog role early and often next season as it breaks in a largely unproven roster.
The 2012-13 schedule released Saturday starts Nov. 10 at Virginia Tech and also features road games at North Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi. The showcase event is a return to the Hawaiian islands for the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu over the Christmas holidays. Arizona, San Diego State, Miami and Mississippi will be in the field there.
The most intriguing home game is Virginia Commonwealth on Jan. 2.
“It’s just a tough schedule with a lot of unknowns,” said ETSU coach Murry Bartow. “It would be very challenging with a veteran team, but we lost three of our best players and have a lot of new guys coming in. We’ll find out some things about them early.”
Bartow expects to have at least six new players in uniform; five were in the latest recruiting class, and Lester Wilson will be a redshirt freshman. There is also one scholarship remaining that could be filled in the fall.
The Bucs haven’t faced North Carolina since 1987, but they have seen some of the other big-conference teams on the schedule in recent years. They opened at Virginia Tech last season, losing 64-53. They were beaten at Ole Miss, 71-50, in 2010, and they routed Georgia 76-58 at a tournament in Hawaii in 2007.
The chance to go back to the Aloha State is a major bonus for the program, says Bartow.
“The Diamond Head Classic is a big, big thing for us,” he said. “This is my 10th year here, and I don’t think we will have played in anything that gives us better exposure than that. It’s not easy to get on ESPN, and all these games will be on one of their channels.
“It’s a very tough field, a great tournament.”
The visit from VCU, a Final Four team in 2011, highlights the home schedule. The teams will play next year in Richmond.
Other non-conference games in the Dome are Tennessee Tech (Nov. 17), Milligan College (Nov. 29) and Charleston Southern (Dec. 18), which is coached by former ETSU graduate assistant Barclay Radebaugh. The Bucs — both teams share that nickname — will play in Charleston on Nov. 20.
“They’re one of the best teams in the Big South now,” said Bartow. “Barclay has done a great job down there. We’ve been talking about starting a series with them; it just worked out that we’ll play twice this year.”
One team the Bucs won’t see twice — or at all — is Belmont. The perennial power in the Atlantic Sun Conference has moved on to the Ohio Valley.
The Bruins won five of the last seven A-Sun championships, defeating ETSU in 15 of their 18 meetings. The Bucs won the two championships they didn’t.
Asked if their absence changes the complexion of the Atlantic Sun, Bartow hedged.
“I don’t know that it does,” he said. “It’s been a one-bid league, and fortunately we’ve been able to win it some. It certainly looks different without Belmont because they’ve been one of the best teams, if not the best.
“Looking at the league, Upstate has everybody back. Mercer has almost everybody back, and they won the CIT at the end of last year. I would guess those teams will be among the favorites.”
Northern Kentucky, a rising Division II school on the outskirts of Cincinnati, takes Belmont’s place in the A-Sun lineup. The Bucs will visit the 9,400-seat Bank of Kentucky Center the second conference game of the season, on Jan. 7.
“I know nothing about them right now,” said Bartow, “other than the fact they have an incredible facility to play in.”
The Atlantic Sun tournament returns to Macon, Ga., for the third straight season on March 6.
ETSU fans will get their first glimpse of the team in a game setting when Carson-Newman comes to the Dome for an exhibition on Nov. 3.