The East Tennessee State basketball team went into Cassell Coliseum and held its own with Virginia Tech to open the season a year ago.
With plenty of fresh faces on both sides, ETSU coach Murry Bartow isn’t sure what the experience will be worth today when the teams tip off a new season. Gametime is 2 o’clock.
“These are different teams, and with them having a first-year head coach, we’re going in totally blind,” said Bartow, who enters his 10th season at ETSU. “We know some of their personnel – (Erick) Green is a very good player, (Jarell) Eddie is a very good player, and (Robert) Brown hurt us inside last year – but we just don’t have much of a scouting report.”
The Bucs trailed the Hokies by four with less than two minutes left in the last meeting before losing 64-53. Virginia Tech went on to finish the season with a 16-17 record, and coach Seth Greenberg, a good friend of Bartow’s, was fired.
Johnson was promoted from assistant coach, taking the reins of a program that was picked 10th in the Atlantic Coast Conference preseason poll.
ETSU, meanwhile, was picked in the middle of the pack in the Atlantic Sun Conference.
The Bucs lost three double-figure scorers who accounted for over 37 points and 18 rebounds for a 17-14 team. The new roster includes two junior-college transfers, three true freshmen and redshirt freshman Lester Wilson.
Wilson scored a game-high 17 points last Saturday as the Bucs held on to defeat Carson-Newman 71-63 in their only exhibition game of the preseason. Venturing to Blacksburg will be a much different challenge.
“We played a Division II team a few days ago and had to make some plays at the end to win,” said Bartow. “Now we’re playing an ACC team on the road, so we’ve got a lot of work to do. We’ve got an incredibly coachable team; we just need game experience.
“We’ll play eight or nine guys this weekend, and at least six of them didn’t play at all for us last year.”
Senior guards Sheldon Cooley and Marcus Dubose are the only seasoned players. Cooley scored 10 in that last game with the Hokies.
“We fought pretty hard, and it was a close game all the way through,” said Cooley. “We just didn’t execute at the end, but we were right there.”
The Bucs didn’t see Green in that game. The 6-3 guard, now a senior with 941 career points, sat out with an injury but ended up leading the team in scoring (15.6), assists and steals for the season.
Tyrone Garland led the Hokies with 13 points. Brown had 12, and freshman Dorian Finney-Smith had 10 points and 16 rebounds in his college debut.
Finney-Smith has since transferred to Florida.
Bartow will start a true freshman, Petey McClain, at point guard today. That allows Cooley to move over to shooting guard and gives the Bucs a little experience coming off the bench with Dubose.
“Personally, I prefer playing the 2,” said Cooley. “Petey is more of a quarterback for our offense, and I’m confident he’s going to play well. When I play the point, I’m more of a scorer.”
Dubose, the team’s leading returning scorer (10.8), probably made the move easier by going 1 of 12 in the Carson-Newman exhibition. Wilson, a 6-4 wing, will also come off the bench today.
ETSU's front-court starters will be former jucos Hunter Harris (6-7, 220, Jr.) and Kinard Gadsden-Gilliard (6-5, 250, Jr.), and John Walton (6-7, 200, So.), who played in just 12 games as a freshman.
Virginia Tech’s probable starters include Green and Brown (6-5, 190, So.) in the backcourt, with Eddie (6-7, 218, Jr.) and C.J. Barksdale (6-8, 232, So.) at forwards and Cadarian Raines (6-9, 238, R-Jr.) at center.
Tech holds a 14-3 advantage in the series and is 10-1 at home. The Hokies are 21-4 all-time against current A-Sun teams.