Eight games into a new basketball season, it’s safe to say East Tennessee State is getting better.
The Bucs have won three of their last four games as they prepare to visit Austin Peay tonight. They still haven’t won a road game — or a real home game, for that matter — but they appear to have shaken off that 0-4 start to the season.
As the exhibition blowouts suggested, there are more scorers to lean on with this team, which features seven players who didn’t take part in that 22-loss adventure a year ago.
The Bucs’ offensive output is up more than 10 points a game, to 72.5, and five different guys have led them in scoring already. And that doesn’t include A.J. Merriweather, the most impactful freshman to arrive on the scene since Mike Smith in 2006.
Of course, most of the positive vibes have emanated from Freedom Hall. That’s where the Bucs won all three of their games, and they likely won’t play there again this season.
With their next home date still two weeks away, most of the game-day equipment that was brought to the civic center has been packed up and returned to the Dome. Athletic director Dick Sander suggested last week that the team might be able to keeping playing at Freedom Hall, if the dates could be cleared and the stars lined up, but he didn’t want to bounce back and forth between venues.
Sander was reportedly out of town on business Tuesday.
The read on this ETSU team is a little clearer in early December because the schedule has served up a string of mid-major opponents. There have been no money games against nationally ranked teams, or mismatches against Division II teams. (Tusculum is coming soon.)
The only daunting matchup in the pre-conference schedule comes Saturday at Georgia Tech — and it’s not even that daunting, considering the Yellow Jackets are 5-3 with three double-digit losses.
The Bucs’ immediate concern is beating an Ohio Valley Conference team, something they failed to do at home against Morehead State (71-63) and at Tennessee Tech (98-83).
Austin Peay, picked third in the OVC West, is 4-3 and finding ways to win. The Governors are 3-1 in games decided by three points or less.
The Bucs are still vulnerable when it comes to rebounding and turnovers, but there are encouraging developments.
Aside from Merriweather, the 6-2 swingman from Jackson who has been bringing plenty of energy along with 9.8 points and a team-high 7.0 rebounds a game, the rise of the second-year jucos is making a difference.
Kinard Gadsden-Gilliard leads the team in scoring, at 15 ppg., and is grabbing over five rebounds a game. At 6-6 and 250 pounds, he also showed off his passing skills with seven assists in the Marshall game last Saturday.
Hunter Harris, meanwhile, had 17 points and 13 rebounds in the 88-78 victory. He’s shooting 64 percent from the field for the season and starting to look more comfortable in the Division I paint.
Junior wing Rashawn Rembert gives the team a consistent threat from the perimeter; he’s made at least one 3-pointer in 37 straight games and is shooting 40 percent from the arc. If Lester Wilson can rediscover his stroke — he’s 9 of 34 from long range so far — the offense opens up further.
Rembert and Gadsden-Gilliard are the only players averaging over 30 minutes a game, and eight are playing at least 15 minutes. So there may be strength in numbers as the Bucs run through their final season in the Atlantic Sun Conference.