The best thing that can be said for East Tennessee State basketball this season is that it’s over. The long, painful grind is finally over.
While Florida Gulf Coast moved into the NCAA tournament field for the first time with an Atlantic Sun Conference championship on Saturday, the Bucs were left to wonder how they’ll ever get back.
Murry Bartow has posted only two losing seasons in a decade at ETSU, but it may take awhile to dig out from this 22-loss debacle. The coach doesn’t have a lot going for him heading into the offseason.
The team’s best player, guard Jarvis Jones, is the only departing senior. The rest of the roster, with the possible exception of redshirt freshman Lester Wilson, lacks any star quality.
So assuming there isn’t a mass exodus in the weeks and months ahead, a bad team will return mostly intact next season.
As of now, Bartow has only one scholarship to offer. He signed two high school swingmen early, and has to hope they are exceptional from the start. He can’t afford any more recruiting misses.
For sure, he can’t afford another season like this one.
The bad omens started early when Jones, a fifth-year senior, was ruled academically ineligible for first semester. Then another senior, forward Lukas Poderis, tore an Achilles tendon in a preseason scrimmage and had to redshirt.
The whole thing went astray when the team’s two other seniors, guards Sheldon Cooley and Marcus Dubose, were arrested on drug charges just two games into the season and subsequently dismissed. A nine-game losing streak, the team’s longest in 16 years, soon followed.
The Bucs showed some grit and pulled off a few remarkable rallies here and there to finish 8-10 in the conference. But by the time they limped into Macon as the 6-seed last week, they were a fairly demoralized bunch.
They had suffered their worst loss ever (109-58 to VCU) and their worst A-Sun loss ever (88-56 to USC Upstate). And both came on their home floor.
They managed just two non-conference wins, including a rout of Milligan. The other victim, Charleston Southern, later came to Johnson City and made amends with a 21-point romp.
Fittingly, the Bucs turned in a miserable performance to end the season, losing 67-46 to a Stetson team that hadn’t won a tournament game in seven years. It was their 22nd loss, a new school record.
So where does the program go from here?
It badly needs dependable scorers, not just guys who take a lot of shots. It needs some star power.
Wilson averaged 13 ppg., with a team-high 75 3-pointers, as a redshirt freshman and carried the offensive load through the first half of the schedule. But he lost his shooting touch and faded badly down the stretch, failing to hit double figures in six of the last eight games.
Wilson has to expand his game, use his athleticism more off the dribble, work on his defense and try to be a leader next season.
Sophomore Rashawn Rembert came on to be a pretty solid wing, with an 8.9 scoring average and 58 3-pointers. He was perhaps the main beneficiary of the Cooley-Dubose fallout.
Bartow had hoped Petey McClain would be the long-term solution at point guard. But he was injured for most of the season, and never showed much in the way of offensive skills when he was on the floor.
Can you hitch your wagon to a point guard who can’t shoot for four years? Right now there’s nobody else.
The team’s two other true freshmen, Mario Stramaglia and Yunio Barrueta, weren’t ready to play Division I basketball this season. And they may never be. One would imagine that either or both will be moving on.
The junior-college transfers, Hunter Harris and Kinard Gadsden-Gilliard, are complementary players at best. Harris is a hard worker, but his flashy juco numbers didn’t translate well against some of the long, post defenders he ran up against.
Sophomore forward John Walton, with his wingspan and athleticism, could develop into a key performer over the next two seasons. So far, he has barely scratched the surface.
The Bucs will certainly welcome back Poderis and Ron Giplaye, the Providence transfer who sat out this season. That’s two big bodies to throw into the mix, but probably not much in the way of point production either.
And defensively, will the Bucs ever be tough enough to get out of that zone for more than a couple of possessions a game?
At this point, the natives are restless, or listless. The three NCAA tournament appearances under Bartow are growing distant. And now Belmont isn’t the problem.
Suddenly, former Division II programs, like Florida Gulf Coast and Upstate, have passed the Bucs by. Even Northern Kentucky, in its Division I debut, finished ahead of them in the standings this season.
The fan count reflects it. The average home attendance dipped this year to 2,623, by far the lowest of the A-Sun era and down more than 700 from a year ago.
Bartow, who has compiled a 188-135 record with two years remaining on his current contract, may take inspiration from former coach Les Robinson’s experience a quarter-century ago.
The Bucs had just gone 7-21 in the 1986-87 season, setting what had stood as the school record for most losses until now. Two years later, with young guns named Jennings and Dennis leading the way, they began their famous four-peat in the Southern Conference — the best run of basketball in school history.
Right now, few can imagine that lightning will strike twice.