The quest for that first victory of the young basketball season doesn’t get any easier for East Tennessee State tonight.
The Bucs (0-2) will be in Bowling Green, Ky., to face Sun Belt Conference favorite Western Kentucky (0-1). Tipoff is 8 o’clock at Diddle Arena.
The teams were old Ohio Valley Conference rivals but haven’t played since 1980. The Hilltoppers lead the series 36-11.
“This will be a tough trip,” ETSU coach Murry Bartow said Friday before a final workout in the Dome. “They’re an NCAA tournament team the last two years, with four starters back. It’s a physical team that pressures very hard defensively and goes to the offensive glass, which has obviously been our biggest problem to this point.
“We could be very easily be 2-0 if we’d handled our defensive rebounding.”
Instead, the Bucs lost 80-75 to Charlotte and 71-63 to Morehead State in their home opener on Tuesday night. They were in control in the latter after a 17-0 run in the first half, but the Eagles gathered themselves and pulled away late.
The Bucs gave up 20 offensive rebounds and were beaten 45-30 overall, leading Bartow to question himself and his team afterwards.
More muscle may be on the way soon.
Ron Giplaye, the 6-6, 250-pound junior who underwent open-heart surgery in late August, has been cleared to practice. He sat out last season after transferring in from Providence and was diagnosed early this summer with a congenital abnormality that was described as a “life-threatening condition.”
Giplaye has been shooting and doing some light conditioning work in recent weeks.
“Today is the first day where he can get into contact,” said Bartow. “We’re going to go very slowly with him over the next week and see just where he is physically. If he can play, he’ll help us.”
Lukas Poderis may, too, if he gets off the bench. Bartow second-guessed himself for not playing the 6-8, 250-pound senior after the Morehead State loss.
“It was totally a mistake on my part the other night for not getting Lukas in, especially in the second half,” said Bartow. “I think he can help us on both ends. I just have to get him in there.”
It’s been a humbling start for the fifth-year senior. He missed a free throw that could have tied the Charlotte game with seven seconds left, and then never peeled off his warm-ups in a tough, physical game that was up for grabs.
Another possible answer for the Bucs is freshman Isaac Banks, who has looked like a natural rebounder during his brief stints on the floor so far. Of course, he played only three minutes against Morehead.
“He just needs some experience and weight, maybe 10 to 15 pounds,” Bartow said of the 6-7, 215-pounder. “I really believe his junior and senior years that he’ll be an all-league caliber player. He has great defensive instincts and can shoot the ball. At this stage of his career, he’s at least equal to where Isiah Brown was.”
Whatever lineup the Bucs come up with tonight, they’ll have their hands full.
Western Kentucky was beaten fairly handily in its season opener, 66-49 in an ESPN Tipoff Classic game Monday night at Wichita State. But the Hilltoppers don’t figure to be down for long.
They return seven of their top eight scorers and five of their top six rebounders from an NCAA tournament team that won 20 games.
Junior guard T.J. Price (6-4, 215) is a first-team all-conference pick in the Sun Belt. He averaged 15.2 points a game last season and made 81 3-pointers.
Junior forward George Fant (6-6, 245) is a second-teamer who averaged 12.8 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds.
“They don’t have as much size inside as Charlotte,” said Bartow, “but they’re thick and very skilled. Price and Fant are really good players.”
The Bucs have four players averaging in double figures, led by Kinard Gadsden-Gilliard at 16.5. The senior forward took a strange route to get there, scoring a career-high 31 points at Charlotte and then two against Morehead State.
Rashawn Rembert had 21 against the Eagles to boost his season average to 16.0. Lester Wilson (11.5) and A.J. Merriweather (11.0) are also in double figures.
Merriweather, at 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds, is averaging nine rebounds a game, which is twice his nearest teammate. The youngster has also established himself as an emotional leader.
“He’s a very vocal kid, very emotional, and he’s that way every day,” said Bartow. “I love the fact that he’s that way. At the same time, we need more vocal leadership from the older guys and need them to be a little more assertive.”