There aren’t many feel-good opportunities on the horizon for the ailing East Tennessee State basketball team.
A trip to Chapel Hill certainly wouldn’t qualify as one.
The Bucs limp into the Dean Dome tonight with an eight-man roster and little chance of staying with 20th-ranked North Carolina for long. Gametime is 7:30.
Coach Murry Bartow says his team is just trying to fight through adversity and get better, but it may be hard to tell if the Bucs make much progress in December.
They opened the month with a lackluster 25-point loss at James Madison on Wednesday night. Next week they’ll visit Mississippi, a team that’s currently undefeated, and then finish the year in Hawaii. Their first opponent there: No. 8 Arizona.
“It’s going to be a difficult thing to evaluate our team during this stretch,” Bartow said Friday. “Every guy we’re playing is basically new. We don’t have many guys, and offensively we’ve got a lot of challenges.
“The reality as a mid-major is that you have to keep your sanity in November and December. Three of our next four games are against legitimate Top 25 teams, so it’s going to be hard.”
One thing is certain: Bartow doesn’t have a lot of options on game nights right now.
Point guard Petey McClain is still nursing an ankle injury and won’t be back in the lineup until the Hawaii tournament at the earliest. Forward Kinard Gadsden-Gilliard is also hobbling on a bad ankle but will play tonight.
“I’m a pretty big guy, so it’s carrying a lot of weight,” said the 6-5, 250-pound junior before boarding the team bus Friday. “I really don’t have time to be injured right now.”
The loss of McClain has rippled through the lineup. The Bucs had trouble just getting the ball upcourt against the JMU press as wings like Rashawn Rembert and Yunio Barrueta were asked to transform themselves into ballhandlers.
Bartow likened it to asking tight ends to play quarterback.
“There’s just not a whole lot to juggle with this team right now,” he said. “The reality is we do not have a point guard. You can fake it and try to do different things, but when you can’t dribble and pass well, you’re not going to score well.”
So one can only imagine what might play out tonight against athletes the caliber that coach Roy Williams has at his disposal.
“We go to Georgia and score 38 points, and at JMU we get 45,” said Bartow. “I’m not sure what that translates into tomorrow. You do the math.”
The last time the Bucs played the Tar Heels was 1987, back when guys like J.R. Reid and Jeff Lebo were budding stars and the Smith Center (aka, Dean Dome) was a new, powder blue basketball palace. They were crushed 118-67, one of the worst losses in school history.
The Tar Heels have won the five previous meetings by an average of 32 points.
Carolina certainly isn’t invinceable this season after sending another crop of talent on to the NBA from a 32-6 team. Picked third in the ACC preseason poll, the Tar Heels have already beaten decisively by Butler (82-71) and top-ranked Indiana (83-59).
“They lost some good players last year, a lot off the front line,” said Bartow. “But they’re still the typical North Carolina team – very talented, lot of speed, lot of length. It’s another level of athlete.”
James Michael McAdoo is the Tar Heels’ leading scorer (15.8) and rebounder (9.3). The 6-9, 230-pound sophomore already has four double-doubles this season.
Junior wing Reggie Bullock (12.3) and sophomore guard P.J. Hairston (11.6) are also scoring in double figures. Four others average at least 7.9.
The Bucs are led by Lester Wilson, currently the top-scoring freshman in the country at 19.7 ppg. No one else on the team is in double figures.
All in all, tonight is a daunting mismatch for the Bucs. But Gadsden-Gilliard says they won’t be feeling sorry for themselves, before or after the game.
“We just have to deal with our situation,” he said. “Right now we’re eight guys trying to band together as a family. We’re taking a no-excuses mentality and trying to stay positive.”