With a long losing streak out of the way, the East Tennessee State basketball team has a chance to put together a couple of wins at home this week. Stetson visits the Dome tonight, followed by Florida Gulf Coast on Saturday.
Coach Murry Bartow thinks some progress was made during the Bucs’ road trip last weekend to Lipscomb and Northern Kentucky. They were able to snap a nine-game losing streak in the latter despite scoring just 49 points.
“We’re certainly a better team than we were 10 days ago,” Bartow said Wednesday. “We changed the tempo a little bit on that trip, and defensively we played pretty well in both games. Offensively it was still a struggle, but I saw vast improvement from what we had been doing.”
Point guard Petey McClain had to sit out the second half of the 49-44 win at Northern Kentucky, and it remains to be seen whether he’ll play tonight. The freshman has been plagued by injuries to both ankles, and he’s missed seven games.
McClain was in uniform and shooting before practice Wednesday, though Bartow called his availability for Stetson “very questionable.” McClain said there’s a “good chance” he’ll play.
“I need to be out there if I can,” he said. “It’s tough knowing that the team needs me and not being able to help.”
The Bucs (3-12, 1-1) will probably have their hands full with Stetson (5-10, 2-2) regardless. The Hatters have always given them trouble, even during championship seasons, and now appear to be on an upward arc under second-year coach Casey Alexander, the former Belmont assistant.
The Hatters went 9-20 in his debut season but still split with the Bucs for the fourth straight year. ETSU leads the overall series 10-7.
All-conference center Adam Pegg is a 6-9, 260-pound senior who leads the Hatters in scoring (15.1) and averages 5.6 rebounds. Junior guard Chris Perez is scoring 14.8 and was named the A-Sun player of the week on Tuesday after netting 23 in a victory over Jacksonville.
Aaron Graham, another junior guard, is averaging 13.3 ppg. He has tossed in 35 3-pointers – a third of the team’s total.
“They’re not an easy team to play,” said Bartow. “Pegg can cause trouble with his size. I love Perez; he’s a baller, a tough kid. They’ve got a lot of really good shooters, guys who can make threes, and (Willie) Green had a double-double in the last game.”
In more the Belmont style, the Hatters are hoisting over 21 threes a game and average 70.6 points per game, which ranks third in the league. The Bucs, by contrast, average 56.5 and are last in virtually every offensive category. They’ve scored 60 points only once in their last 10 games.
Lester Wilson continues to lead the way at 15.1, mostly on the strength of 41 3-pointers. Jarvis Jones (13.3) is the team’s only other double-figure scorer; he’s had to bounce from shooting guard to the point more frequently than he’d like.
“That’s not his comfort zone, not who he is,” said Bartow. “But he’s really our only option there when Petey’s out.”
The Bucs have been challenged offensively the whole way. They’re less ugly with McClain on the floor, though the youngster’s season averages of 3.1 points and 3.2 assists are hardly eye-catching.
“He’s a Michael Vick-type quarterback,” said Bartow, “and if he doesn’t have his ankles under him, that really limits his penetration. He’s obviously not a great shooter.”
Asked whether McClain’s playing status is going to be a day-to-day question for the rest of the year, the coach shrugged.
“We’ve been dealing with this for six weeks now,” he said.
The Bucs would certainly like to use tonight’s game to distance themselves from their last effort at home. Virginia Commonwealth came in on Jan. 2 and wished them a happy new year with a 109-58 blowout that matched the worst loss in their history.
That more than overshadowed the debut of a new lighting system that drew praise from most everyone in attendance. It was a dark night otherwise.
“We definitely didn’t play our best that night,” said sophomore forward John Walton. “We want to get back out there and kind of redeem ourselves.”
The team at least has something positive on its ledger after five weeks of losing – and losing big in most cases. The long bus ride home from Northern Kentucky had a different feel.
“It was way better, a lot more smiles,” said Walton. “That was a much-needed win. Now we just need to build on it.”