A.J. Merriweather moved into East Tennessee State’s starting lineup for the first time Saturday, and he’ll likely be there awhile.
The energetic freshman wing scored 27 points, missing just one of his 13 shots, and had seven rebounds and three steals in the Bucs’ 119-83 exhibition victory over Mars Hill. His emergence is clearly the team’s most promising development of the preseason.
“I love that man … he brings so much energy,” said sophomore guard Lester Wilson, who added 17 points, five rebounds and four steals for the Bucs. “If you’re down and he’s beside you, you feel it. You have no choice but to feel that energy.
“We need a player like that on the team.”
Merriweather came off the bench to produce 17 points, seven rebounds and five steals in the Bucs’ first exhibition, a nearly identical 118-83 victory over Milligan College. And he missed only one shot that night, too.
The youngster from Jackson said it did feel different to be on the floor for the opening tip Saturday.
“I knew from the start I had to get my game going, get the team going,” he said. “I couldn’t sit there and watch.”
Merriweather responded by scoring 16 of his points in the first half, but the Bucs led by only four, 49-45, at the break. They then raced away with 70 points on 64 percent shooting in front of a homecoming crowd of 3,208.
With less than a week to go before Friday night’s season opener at Charlotte, ETSU coach Murry Bartow was left with another good news/bad news scenario to assess.
“We’re definitely scoring the ball, and it makes you look good when you make shots,” he said. “Defensively, we need to fix some things. But I think we can fix them.”
Charlotte will certainly present different matchup problems. It’s a traditionally tough team from Conference USA.
Mars Hill is an NCAA Division II team coming off a 4-22 season. The Lions have added 13 new players to their roster in coach Rick Scruggs’ second year, and they’re picked to finish in the South Atlantic Conference cellar.
They committed a whopping 36 turnovers against the Bucs, including 12 by junior guard Devonte Williams – who also had nine assists. And it was still a tight game until ETSU reeled off 18 straight points early in the second half. Merriweather had seven of those.
“Our offense was good,” he said. “Defensively, we still have a lot of work to do.”
Five ETSU players scored in double figures, and Rashawn Rembert wasn’t one of them. The junior guard had 33 points, with nine 3-pointers, in the Milligan exhibition, but he finished with nine against the Lions.
Rembert took just eight shots and was 1 of 3 from behind the arc.
“He just didn’t get as many looks,” said Bartow. “They played him well and he never got going. If you could script it, he’d take eight or nine (3-pointers) a game.”
Hunter Harris had 12 points and six rebounds for the Bucs, while freshman Devin Harris and Kinard Gadsden-Gilliard each finished with 10 points.
The Lions had four players in double figures, led by Williams with 15.
For all intents and purposes, this game was a showcase for Merriweather, who at 6-foot-2 impresses with his ability to slash to the rim and finish.
“I’ve been working on that a lot,” he said. “In high school, I couldn’t finish.”
Merriweather’s intangibles are what seem to intrigue his teammates and coaches the most at this early stage of his career.
“He’s fun to watch,” said Bartow. “That’s the way he practices every day. He got 27 today and we didn’t run one set for him. He just has that energy, passion and hustle … you love to coach guys with passion. He has that twinkle in his eye.”