On an East Tennessee State basketball team with so many newcomers, Sheldon Cooley is one of the few known commodities.
Cooley, a 6-3 senior guard, will be relied upon heavily as the Bucs begin to work their way into the season.
“Sheldon’s got a very critical role,” ETSU coach Murry Bartow said before Monday’s practice. “He’s a fourth-year guy and he’s started a lot. He’s got to be a great leader on and off the court.”
Nobody on ETSU’s current roster played as many minutes as Cooley last season. He’s the team’s second-leading returning scorer, only behind fellow senior Marcus Dubose.
With a roster dotted with newcomers – seven players on the team have never played a minute for the Bucs – ETSU is counting on the returning players to offer some stability.
“The team feels a little different, but we all came in over the summer and took summer classes, so we got to see how each other plays a little bit,” Cooley said. “The chemistry is coming along good. We have a nice group of new players this year.”
Cooley defends well – he was among the nation’s leaders in steals last year – and averaged 9.6 points a game as a junior.
“I think he’s an all-league caliber player,” Bartow said. “Number one, he’s got to produce a lot. Number two, he’s got to lead by example and he’s got to lead vocally. He’s certainly a pivotal guy. Our four seniors are all pivotal. It would start with Sheldon.”
Bartow says consistency is a goal for Cooley, who has shown flashes of brilliance, most notably when he scored a career-high 29 points against Mercer in 2010. He scored in double figures 14 times in 27 games last year.
Cooley said his goals for the upcoming season are simple.
“Going into my last year, hopefully I have a big year,” he said. “We’re trying to get that A-Sun championship this year. I want to get back to the (NCAA) tournament. We should have made it last year.”
Cooley wasn’t with the team last March when it fell to Belmont in the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament semifinals. He was suspended late in the season after being arrested for filing a false police report in the wake of two teammates being robbed on campus.
“He’s a great young guy,” Bartow said. “Obviously, in that situation, he made a mistake. He paid for it and our team paid for it. You have to learn from it and move on. I think he’s done that and I think our team’s done that.”
The Bucs open the season Nov. 3 with an exhibition game against Carson-Newman at the Minidome. They open the regular season Nov. 10 at Virginia Tech.