When the lights come on at the Minidome tonight for East Tennessee State’s basketball game against Virginia Commonwealth, fans might notice a little something different.
The Dome’s lighting configuration has been changed, focusing on the court and darkening the rest of the cavernous arena. And the Bucs might have their point guard, Petey McClain, back in uniform after a lengthy absence.
McClain’s return would be a welcome sight. Since the freshman playmaker injured his right ankle, the Bucs have lost seven games in a row.
“He looks like he’s eager and ready,” ETSU coach Murry Bartow said. “We’re just day-to-day with him. We’re hoping we can get him back because certainly he would help us. We need another body and we need a guy who can run the team. It would help if he does come back.”
McClain turned his ankle in practice on Dec. 2 and hasn’t played since a brief appearance in the Bucs’ blowout win against Milligan College. He’s been in and out of practice this week and Bartow said McClain’s possible return will be a game-time decision.
McClain says the seven-game absence was the longest he’s ever had to endure in his basketball-playing life and it wasn’t fun.
“It’s tough sitting there being injured, not being able to play and help the team out,” McClain said. “It was real frustrating.”
Should McClain return to the lineup tonight, he’ll see two teams headed in different directions. While the Bucs have lost seven in a row, Shaka Smart’s Rams, who were in the Final Four two seasons ago, have won seven consecutive games. VCU’s three losses all came by single digits, including a 67-58 setback to No. 1 Duke.
“They’re a great team,” Bartow said. “Shaka’s done a great job. They’ve been a real force in college basketball, fresh off a Final Four appearance. They’ve got another great team.”
The Rams feature a balanced attack, led by Treveon Graham (6-5 sophomore) and Juvonte Reddic (6-9 junior), who each average 14.3 points a game. Troy Daniels (6-4 senior) averages 12.6 and Rob Brandenberg (6-2 junior) averages 10.7.
VCU leads the country in steals at 13.2 per game and is ninth in turnover margin.
“With a guard-depleted team like we’ve got, that’s not a real good combination,” Bartow said. “They’re a team that presses and forces steals and turnovers. We, obviously, do not have many guards on our team so that’s not a great combination. They’re really good players and a very well coached team.”
Lester Wilson continues to lead the Bucs, averaging 15.5 points a game. Jarvis Jones is next at 15.2. Wilson, for one, can’t wait to see McClain back on the court. Jones, a natural shooting guard, has been handling the point the past few games.
“We’ll feel a lot more organized as a team because we’ll have people not playing spots they’re not used to playing,” Wilson said. “The two guard, he can dribble, but he’s not a point guard. What we’ve got right now is a two guard at point guard. When Petey comes back, he’s a true point guard. That will help a lot of people out.”
This will be the Bucs’ final non-conference game. They begin Atlantic Sun Conference play at Lipscomb on Saturday.
“As I told the guys, we’ve been in this exact position, under.500, and years and two of the last three years, we’ve gotten into postseason play,” Bartow said. “We’ve had a brutally hard schedule, the hardest schedule since I’ve been here, with a depleted team. That’s not a real good combination.
“Even if we had the best team since I’ve been here, with the schedule we’ve had, we might be 6-6, 5-7. But when you’ve played five money games plus Hawaii on their home floor, plus James Madison on their home floor plus Arizona ... There’s still a lot of games left, 19 games left, and we’re gonna fight to win every one of them if we can.”