Win or lose, you can say this about East Tennessee State’s Bucs since conference play began: they’re doing it the hard way.
The Bucs have taken a rollercoaster ride to 4-4 in the Atlantic Sun, alternating losses and wins so far in January. They’ve rallied from 19 down in the second half to beat Florida Gulf Coast and by 14 to win over North Florida. Three of their losses were by a combined 10 points.
So despite a 6-15 overall record that includes a nine-game losing streak — most by blowouts, and their longest drought in 37 years — the Bucs are just one game out of first in the A-Sun as they hit the midway point in the schedule tonight at South Carolina Upstate.
Credit Belmont’s absence, but the way things are shaping up, with five teams currently sporting three losses, it’s no wonder coach Murry Bartow dares to talk about winning a championship with this bunch.
“I really believe if we can stay healthy — and it’s a big if — and grow our team, we can win the league,” said Bartow. “We’re not fearful of any team in the league. I’m also smart enough to know anybody can beat us if we don’t play well. Almost every game is tight, every game is close.”
What the Bucs are producing is often ugly. There’s simply not an abundance of talent, and it shows. But at this point, after the dismissal of key seniors, injuries and all the offensive struggles, there’s also no denying this team has a certain fighter’s mentality.
You know the Bucs are going to get down early, and you’re reasonably sure they’re going to scrap their way back. Maybe they’ll even win back-to-back games before long.
“We never give up; we always fight,” said junior forward Hunter Harris after a breakout 25-point game Saturday against North Florida. “That’s the nature of East Tennessee State basketball, and this team.”
The 89-75 win over the Ospreys was the kind of head-scratching performance that has become typical this month. The Bucs fell behind 17-4 at the start of the game, still looked fairly lost at halftime, and then ripped off 56 points on 60 percent shooting in the second half.
Slow starts, of course, have been the norm most of the season. Bartow and his staff have spent plenty of time watching tape and analyzing, but have come up with no good reason for it.
“If we could figure that out and get everybody clicking on the same page …,” he said, leaving the rest to the imagination.
Bartow has certainly had plenty of practice giving the motivational halftime speech. Asked what the mood in the lockerroom was Saturday with his team trailing 45-33, after watching the Ospreys shoot 68 percent, the coach chuckled.
“It was pretty calm. Not super calm,” he said. “We’ve got to figure out what’s wrong when things are going bad, and what pushes us when things are right.”
The Bucs are sure to have their hands full again tonight at Upstate. The Spartans are one of those three-loss teams in the conference, and they’ve always been hard to deal with in Spartanburg. They’ve beaten ETSU there the last two years.
There are plenty of reasons why that streak will continue tonight.
Said Bartow, “They’re a big team. It’s a hard gym to play in. Eddie (Payne) is a very good coach. They’ve got Torrey Craig, who is certainly one of the best players in our league.”
On the other hand, most of these games are coming down to the final minute. And the Bucs have a puncher’s chance.