Seven practices into the preseason, East Tennessee State basketball coach Murry Bartow is still trying to get a feel for his revamped team.
He says fans are “going to need a program” tonight for their first glimpse of the Bucs at the annual Bluenanza festivities. Both the men’s and women’s teams will be on display in the Dome, beginning at 7 o’clock.
Admission is free to the public.
Bartow, entering his 10th season at ETSU, says this is perhaps the most mysterious collection of talent during his tenure. More than half the roster — seven players — has yet to play a minute for the Bucs.
“The effort has been great, the attitude is great, the energy is great,” Bartow said Wednesday. “There are just so many new guys and unknowns, probably more unknowns than I’ve ever had here.
“If we played a game tonight, five of our top eight guys might have never played here before.”
All but forwards Hunter Harris, a junior-college transfer, and Ron Giplaye, who transferred in from Providence College, were around for practice the second semester of summer school. Giplaye will not be eligible to play until next season.
Harris, a second-team juco All-American who averaged over 22 points and 13 rebounds last season at Volunteer State, is “a work in progress,” according to Bartow.
“Hunter is really going to be good, but he’s going to be so much better a year from now than today,” he said. “He just needs reps, daily coaching, practices and games. What he’s got is a motor, and he’s a very willing student. He’s like a sponge.”
The 6-7, 220-pounder is one of three players who have really caught the coach’s eye early in the preseason, along with 6-5, 250-pound juco forward Kinard Gadsden-Gilliard and 6-4, 215-pound freshman guard Yunio “Junior” Barrueta.
Gadsden-Gilliard, says Bartow, “is pretty good at both ends and would be one of the top four or five guys right now.” As for Barrueta, “he’s got a lot of Mike Smith in him. He makes those tough type plays.”
Fans may not see much of another freshman tonight. Point guard Petey McClain suffered a concussion in practice last week and was still waiting for medical clearance Wednesday to go full speed again.
Bluenanza will include scrimmages by both teams, 3-point shooting contests and a dunk contest for the men.
Bojangles is providing free food for students, and the first 500 fans will be treated to complimentary stadium food. Doors open at 6.
“It’s been a good event, and I think our marketing staff has done a great job each year,” said Bartow. “It’s more streamlined than ever now. People aren’t just sitting there for two hours.”
Fans who haven’t been in the Dome in awhile will notice some changes, beginning with new decor in the third-floor concourse areas. The auxiliary gym on the East side of the building is also being converted into an enclosed practice facility.
“We’re still a solid three weeks away from completion,” said Bartow. “The walls are up and now they’re painting. We’ve got to do some stuff to the ceiling to dress that up and change the look. Once it’s all finished, we’re gong to have a nice place.”
Bartow said the benefits for his program will be obvious.
“It’s really two-fold,” he said. “First and foremost, better facilities mean better recruiting. You get better players with better facilities; that’s just the way it works.
“The second big thing is having some privacy to practice. It can be hard to focus and hold the players’ attention when there are a hundred things going on around you, like there often are in that building.”
A smaller benefit for coaches will be having six goals at their disposal for shooting drills instead of two.
There will also be several graphic touches on the walls, including a collage of the Bucs’ championship seasons.
Still to come in the main arena is a dropdown lighting grid over the court that will allow for darkening of seating areas and enhance the basketball atmosphere. That will not be in place by the home opener against Tennessee Tech on Nov. 17 and may necessitate moving a game to Brooks Gym once the installation process begins.
New digital LED advertising boards that run the length of the court on the East side should be ready for the start of the season.
New seating around the court is planned for next season.
Season-ticket sales are running about the same as last season, said ticket manager Brandon Hudson.
“Last season we had between 2,000 and 2,100, and we’re right at that number again,” Hudson said Wednesday. “We always sell some at Bluenanza, as we always do, and we do have some donor events coming up. So we’ll probably be up slightly by the start of the season.”
Hudson said Courtside Club seating has been doubled to 80 and is already sold out.