It may take awhile to get a feel for a revamped East Tennessee State basketball team this season, but the home fans will have plenty of chances early.
The Bucs’ schedule, released Tuesday, shows a record 17 home dates, including five in November and three in December. In another departure from the norm, three of those games will be played at Freedom Hall Civic Center.
“The biggest thing for our team, our fans and the community is the fact that we’re playing 17 games at home,” said coach Murry Bartow. “That’s huge. If you look at the 10 years I’ve been here, we normally play 12 or 13 home games, and seven of the first 10 are on the road. Some of those are guarantee games, so you know you’re probably going to be under .500 after 10 games.
“Just because we’re at home doesn’t mean we’re winning all those games; there are no gimmes. But it does give our team a chance to get off to a much better start.”
The early run includes a potpourri of mid-majors: Morehead State, Winthrop, Austin Peay, Valparaiso, Samford, Stephen F. Austin, Marshall. The latter three will be played at Freedom Hall in late November as part of a multi-tier event known as the Roundball Showcase.
The Bucs have never played more than one game in a season in the 39-year-old city-owned facility, which seats about 6,000 for basketball and sits only two miles from campus. But there was some discussion from athletic director Richard Sander earlier this summer about possibly moving all games there from the Dome.
It’s unclear now whether these three dates will serve as a test run for a future move.
“At least from what I’ve heard, that’s yet to be determined,” said Bartow. “I do think from talking to Dr. Sander and talking to the president (Brian Noland), there is some anticipation about playing games in Freedom Hall. From my standpoint and those of my staff and the players, we’re anxious to see how those games go.”
The Lady Bucs will also play Morehead State there as part of a double-header on Nov. 21. Their complete schedule will be announced today.
Noland, in a statement released by the university, talked of the partnership between ETSU and Johnson City that goes back more than a century now.
“These conversations with the city regarding the presence of our basketball teams at Freedom Hall are an extension of that partnership,” he said, “and present opportunities for our campus and this community to become further engaged.”
For his part, city manager Pete Peterson looks forward to “creating a dynamic atmosphere for Buc basketball.”
“This is another example of working together to promote our university and community, and we look forward to many other collaborative efforts with ETSU,” he said.
Wherever they call home this season, the Bucs will be trying to forge a new identity on the court. They slumped to 10-22 last season, setting a school record for losses, and six new players have been added to the roster.
The home fans will certainly need a program early on.
“We’ve got a lot of new faces, guys who will be trying to blend in,” said Bartow. “I’m glad we can work through some of that on our home court.”
Speaking of new faces, the Bucs have never played Winthrop (Rock Hill, S.C), Valparaiso (Valparaiso, Ind.) or Stephen F. Austin (Nacogdoches, Texas). And they’ve seen Samford, their future Southern Conference sister in Birmingham, Ala., only twice before.
Winthrop and Valpo are no strangers to the NCAA tournament, with the Eagles making nine appearances and the Crusaders eight. Collectively, the non-conference home opponents have made 38 trips to the NCAAs.
The Bucs open their season Nov. 8 at Charlotte, and they’ll play other non-conference road games at Western Kentucky, Tennessee Tech, Austin Peay and Georgia Tech. The Western Kentucky game is part of the Roundball Showcase.
This will be the Bucs’ last season in the Atlantic Sun Conference, and it begins at Kennesaw State on Jan. 4 and wraps up at USC Upstate on Feb. 28. ETSU’s last three conference games are on the road.
The A-Sun is going to a new format for its postseason tournament, with higher-seeded teams hosting games in all rounds.