Hunter Harris took one look at the crowd and smiled.
“There’s a lot of excitement,” the senior forward on the East Tennessee State basketball team said Monday night at the school’s revamped Bluenanza event. “That’s what we need. We need our fans to be involved in what we do.”
Bluenanza 2.0, as it was called, gave ETSU fans a chance to meet the current editions of the men’s and women’s basketball teams.
An enthusiastic crowd of students and supporters gathered in the renovated quad area in front of Brooks Gym. They were waving banners and flags, making a lot of noise and generally enjoying themselves.
“I love it,” new women’s coach Brittney Ezell said of having the event outside in a new-and-improved part of campus. “This is fantastic. I think it’s pretty awesome. The campus beautification has been going great, so why not show it off.”
Every player on each team was introduced while a large video screen showed a couple of poses of them.
As part of the festivities, students — with some help from ETSU players — were chosen to attempt shots from the roof of Brooks Gym to a basket down below, with free tuition on the line. None made it.
The pep band played and a fireworks show closed the festivities. It was a different atmosphere than previous season-opening events held inside the Minidome.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said men’s coach Murry Bartow, who added a little shake to his video introduction. “It’s something different. Sometimes when you do something the same every year, it gets a little stale. The focus here is a little more student-driven. We’re really trying to engage the students and let them know they’re important to our success. “
The men’s team gets into action tonight when Milligan College pays a visit to the Dome for an exhibition game.
Five returners are expected to be in the starting lineup for the Bucs: forwards Kinard Gadsden-Gilliard and Harris, guards Rashawn Rembert and Petey McClain will join center Lukas Poderis.
That would make the top three off the bench Lester Wilson and newcomers Jalen Riley and A.J. Merriweather, although Bartow hedged just a bit.
“A.J.’s our best defender,” he said. “And to be quite honest, we’ve talked so much about defense, I’d really hesitate to not start our best defender.”
Harris says the players are ready to face an opponent other than themselves.
“The team looks good,” he said. “Our defense, man, it’s improved so much from last year. We’re gonna be playing a lot of man. Everybody’s playing hard. Everybody wants to win.”
The Bucs will be down one player. Leonard Smith, a junior-college transfer, has quit the team and returned home to Kentucky.
“He’s not gonna be part of our team,” Bartow said. “He decided he didn’t want to be here and had some things going on back home, some family stuff.”
Milligan has become a common opponent for ETSU in past seasons, for exhibitions or regular-season games. The schools are just a few miles apart, and playing each other makes a lot of sense.
“I think it’s a great game,” Bartow said. “Bill (Robinson) is a really good guy, a really good coach, and runs a good program. Milligan’s right there in Elizabethton, so it’s a win win.
“Our focus is totally on us, though, and hopefully we can play really well for 40 minutes.”
The ETSU women don’t open until Saturday when they play host to Shepherd University in an exhibition.
“We’re coming along, but it’s slow,” Ezell said. “I think they’re buying in. We’ll see. Saturday will be interesting, but we really need to get ready for the following Saturday against Memphis.”