New Year’s resolutions usually deal with some kind of change. For the East Tennessee State basketball team, the best plan might be to continue on its current path as 2013 fades into the memory banks.
The Bucs are trending upward, having won seven of their last nine games to enter the conference schedule with a winning record for the first time since 2008.
The most recent victory, a 73-62 decision over Valparaiso on Sunday, left them feeling pretty good about themselves heading into the new year.
“You never want to be losing, so to get over .500 was great,” super-sub Jalen Riley said. “It feels good.”
The 7-6 Bucs’ winning streak is at three games. Modest as it might seem, it’s better than they did all of last season, when they posted back-to-back victories only once.
It’s not just the wins that have made the recent outings stand out, it’s how they have been accomplished. The Bucs have simply looked good, like they’ve enjoyed being on the court.
After watching the team struggle to win 10 games last year, it was refreshing to see their last two performances when they came from behind to beat Austin Peay and practically blew Valpo off the court in the first half.
It’s as if something has clicked.
“That really showed us something, opened our eyes how good we can be,” ETSU forward Kinard Gadsden-Gilliard said.
A couple of newcomers, Riley and A.J. Merriweather, have been a big part of the resurgence. Merriweather was playing in high school last year, but he doesn’t back down against anyone and appears to have an extremely bright future at ETSU. At 6-foot-2, he’s the team’s leading rebounder.
Riley, a diminutive junior-college transfer, gives the Bucs an element they’ve been lacking in recent years. He just knows how to score. He might not shoot the highest percentage, but some of the shots he makes seem to come at the most opportune times. He’s the second-best free throw shooter on the team behind Rashawn Rembert and he knows how to get to the line by driving past opponents who have no choice other than to foul him.
“Best sixth man in the conference,” Gadsden-Gilliard said of Riley. “I tell him to be aggressive every time he gets in the lane because it’s hard to handle him off the dribble.
“Total offensive package. I just tell him to be aggressive, and that’s his nature.”
Riley keyed the first-half surge against Valparaiso with 15 of his 19 points before halftime. The Bucs led 42-21 at the break.
“That first half was fun,” said Riley, who was chosen as the Atlantic Sun Conference’s player of the week on Monday. “We got off to a good start and we kept it rolling. It makes the game a lot more fun.”
Another newcomer, freshman Isaac Banks, has been on the verge of cracking the regular rotation as of late. He didn’t get off the bench against Valpo, mainly because everybody on the floor was playing so well.
“You just get comfortable when guys are playing well,” ETSU coach Murry Bartow said. “It’s always been kind of my style to give the top six, seven guys as much comfort as they can and let them play.
“To be honest, I had him plugged in with 10 to 15 minutes tonight, and then I didn’t play him. I’ll be shocked if he’s not a starter for us next year. So if I believe that, I desperately need to get him minutes this year, and I will.”
Up next is the first road trip of the Bucs’ final trek through the A-Sun. They play at Kennesaw State on Saturday and at Mercer on Monday night.
“We’re still a work in progress,” Bartow said. “We’re still tweaking some things, still really searching on some things. But we’re a better team today than we were three or four weeks ago. We’ve won seven of our last nine, so we’re getting a little bit better.”