There was a time not too long ago when Ron Giplaye wondered if he’d play basketball again.
Now the question is when.
Giplaye is back on the practice floor at East Tennessee State, just three months after undergoing open-heart surgery for a congenital condition that was causing him “random chest pains.”
There still is no timetable on when the 6-6, 250-pound junior might suit up for his first game for the Bucs. Suffice it to say it can’t come soon enough.
The Lowell, Mass., native, sat out all of last season after transferring in from Providence College. And now he’s still having to bide his time.
“It seems like it’s been forever since I played in a game,” Giplaye said Monday before practice. “I know it’ll be a good day when I finally get back out there.”
The Bucs (0-3) open a three-game homestand tonight against Winthrop (2-1). Giplaye certainly will not be part of that action, but there is at least some planning for his return behind the scenes.
“There’s no way to predict when, and I wouldn’t even try,” said coach Murry Bartow. “We’re just going step by step, one day at a time and hoping for the best. It will depend on his conditioning level and emotionally how he’s feeling.
“As of today, Ron is not ready to play. But when we get to that point, he’ll bring something to the team that we don’t have.”
One thing the Bucs don’t have right now is a win. They’ve battled Charlotte and Western Kentucky to single-digit losses on the road, and they’ve watched Morehead State pull away to beat them by nine at home.
Tonight’s contest presents another mid-major challenge.
Winthrop became an NCAA tournament fixture under former coach Gregg Marshall, who’s now at Wichita State. The Eagles have represented the Big South Conference nine times since 1999.
Pat Kelsey is in his second year as head coach at the Rock Hill, S.C., school. The Eagles are off to a 2-1 start, with wins over Roanoke and USC Upstate and a 21-point loss at Virginia Commonwealth.
The Upstate game, by an 82-74 count, certainly got Bartow’s attention. The Spartans beat the Bucs twice last season and are supposed to be one of the best teams in the Atlantic Sun Conference.
“The fact Winthrop lined up and beat Upstate, which had just gone on the road and beat Virginia Tech, that was one huge barometer,” said Bartow. “And we all know how good VCU is. It’s one of the toughest places in the country to play, and Winthrop was down three or four at half before it got away from them.
“They have a nice blend of perimeters and bigs and really guard you.”
Bartow is trying to figure out how to blend ETSU’s revamped roster. He’s been using a 10-man rotation, trying to get a good look at new players, but hasn’t settled on much of anything yet.
The coach says tonight’s starting lineup will surely be different than the one he used at Western Kentucky, which was different than the two previous games.
“We’ve tinkered, we’ve changed,” he said. “I don’t what the starting lineup will be tomorrow, but I can assure you it will be different.
“We can paint it as having depth when we’re playing 10 guys, but I’d prefer to have five that are head and shoulders above the others. You usually know what you’re going to get.”
The Bucs can’t be sure who their scorers are at this stage.
Senior forward Kinard Gadsden-Gilliard, for example, poured in a career-high 31 points in the season opener at Charlotte. He has a total of six in the two games since.
“I’m a Kinard fan and really believe he’s going to have a good year,” said Bartow. “If he’s capable of going for 31 at Charlotte, he can certainly get us 13 or 14 a game. Obviously, when he goes for two or four a game, he’s underachieving.”
Gadsden-Gilliard, Lester Wilson and A.J. Merriweather were a combined 2-for-18 from the field in the 57-50 loss at Western Kentucky. And still the Bucs were within range in the closing minute.
Now comes a rare three-game homestand early in the season. After tonight the Bucs will host Samford on Thursday night and Stephen F. Austin on Saturday; both games will be played at Freedom Hall.
“It’s really unusual to have three home games in a row this time of year,” said Bartow. “That definitely has not happened since I’ve been here.”
The Bucs will also play Marshall at Freedom Hall on Nov. 30.
Perhaps by then Giplaye will be more than just a spectator on game nights. For now, he’s trying to stay patient and see what happens.
“The mental part has been pretty easy. I act like it never happened,” he said. “How soon I get in is up to coach, depending on how quick I can get in shape. I’m not in great basketball shape right now, but I’m not that far away.
“I’m going hard every day now, and that really helps.”
Notes: The Bucs are shooting 36 percent from the field and averaging 62.7 points per game. They’re being outrebounded 44-33. …
Junior point guard Andre Smith is leading Winthrop in scoring, with a 15.3 average. Senior forward Joab Jerome (13.7) and freshman guard Keon Johnson (13.0) are also scoring in double figures.