The East Tennessee State basketball team has traveled 6,000 miles to get away from the cold and the pessimism and try to enjoy Christmas in Hawaii.
Too bad the Bucs couldn’t leave behind all the other problems that have dogged them from the start this season. They arrived in the islands with a 2-7 record, winless in the last three weeks, and things don’t figure to get any better on a tropical weekend.
The Bucs open play tonight in the Diamond Head Classic with a daunting matchup against unbeaten and fourth-ranked Arizona. Then they’ll face either Miami or the host team, Hawaii, before wrapping up their stay with a consolation game on Christmas Day.
Right now they may simply be looking for respectable losses, and even those have been hard to come by. The Bucs have dropped four in a row, all by at least 21 points.
"We'll try to use the trip to our advantage,” coach Murry Bartow said Tuesday night after a 72-51 sendoff loss to Charleston Southern. “But we've got Arizona first and then either Miami or Hawaii, so obviously it's a tough trip. We're not a very good team right now, obviously. I've gotta coach better and we've gotta play better."
The Charleston Southern loss, against a team they had defeated early in the season, left the Bucs dispirited. Lester Wilson said he was having trouble getting up for the Hawaii trip.
"To be truthful, it just feels like we're going to play another game,” he said. â€¨“As a player, I don't even feel like we deserve it right now."
On the bright side – if there is one – the Bucs have split their two previous games with Arizona.
Their 87-80 victory in the first round of the NCAA tournament in 1992 qualifies as the high-water mark in program history. The previous season, Mister Jennings and company had pushed the Wildcats to the finish in Tucson before falling 88-79.
Of course, those Bucs were loaded with talent. And they could score.
These Bucs … not so much.
It’s a patchwork team that is shooting 37 percent from the field and averaging 57.9 points per game. Against Division I competition, it’s just 53.3.
“The most points all year is 62, and we got a whopping 51 tonight,” said Bartow. “Can we do better offensively? Yes.”
Will it happen tonight? Probably not.
Charleston Southern coach Barclay Radebaugh got a good look at Arizona earlier this season. His Bucs battled the Wildcats in an 82-73 loss more than a month ago in Tucson.
"They're the best, biggest, longest defensive team we've seen in awhile,” said Radebaugh. “You have to spread them out and drive them, which is easier said than done."
The Bucs, of course, don’t have many drivers. They don’t even have a point guard if freshman Petey McClain isn’t able to go after sitting out the last four games with a knee injury.
The team’s best player, Wilson, is mostly a spot-up jump shooter. Teams like Arizona tend to put a lid on those guys.
If the Bucs are looking for some motivation, they can go back to their last visit to Hawaii, in 2007. They opened the Diamond Head Classic against Georgia that year, and everything went right and they rolled to a 76-58 victory.â€¨Maybe there’s a winnable game for the Bucs somewhere in this field, which also includes Mississippi, San Diego State, San Francisco and Indiana State. But it isn’t apparent.
Chances are the Bucs will come home at 2-10 and begin preparing for a very good Virginia Commonwealth team on Jan. 2. Then it’s a steady diet of Atlantic Sun Conference competition the rest of the way.
All things considered, there may not be 10 wins out there for this ETSU team.
“It’s tough right now because none of us are used to losing,” said Wilson. “No one likes losing.”