East Tennessee State basketball coach Murry Bartow knows his team needs to make some hay early in the conference schedule.
The Bucs play seven of their next nine games at home, beginning tonight against Lipscomb. They will finish the regular season with five of the last seven on the road, including the last three.
“As always, there’s a premium on trying to play well and win at home,” Bartow said Wednesday. “You know the road is never easy, especially at the end. You need to win at home.”
The Bucs (8-7, 1-1) saw their four-game win streak snapped Monday night at Mercer. They raced out to a 15-1 lead but were playing catch-up by halftime.
The Bears, preseason favorites in the Atlantic Sun Conference, were able to hang on for a 73-63 victory.
“We got off to a great start and probably did enough decent things defensively to win the game,” said Bartow. “We just didn’t play well enough on offense. We got a lot of clean looks, but couldn’t get many shots to go down. It was one of those nights.”
A.J. Merriweather had 20 points and nine rebounds in the loss. The 6-2 freshman is fourth in the conference in rebounding (6.9), second in steals (1.5) and averaging 12.1 points per game. He’s also shooting over 57 percent from the field.
The Bucs have shown plenty of offensive balance early in the season. Four players are scoring in double figures, led by junior guard Rashawn Rembert at 14.6, and two others are over eight ppg.
Rembert is second in the A-Sun in 3-pointers made, with 40, while senior forward Hunter Harris leads the league in field-goal percentage, at .627. The Bucs are averaging 74.4 points per game, up more than 11 points from last season.
“We don’t have that one guy getting us 20 every night,” said Bartow, “but we spread it around pretty good. We have some new guys who can score, like A.J. and Jalen (Riley), and the returning guys are a year older and have a better feel for things.”
The Bucs will face a Lipscomb team tonight that is still searching for its first conference win. The Bison (5-10 overall) are 0-4, with three of the losses by five points or less.
Casey Alexander, who spent the last two seasons at Stetson, is back in Nashville as a head coach. Alexander was a long-time assistant to Rick Byrd at Belmont before heading to Florida.
He replaces Scott Sanderson, who resigned after 14 seasons with the Bison.
“Casey is a good coach, and he’s doing a good job with this team,” said Bartow. “Obviously, they’re not off to a good record in the league, but they’ve had some bad luck. Three of the four games they lost went right to the wire.”
The Bison are powered by the Smith brothers, Martin and Malcolm, junior forwards from Clarksville. Martin is second in the conference in scoring, at 17.1, while Malcolm averages 12.8 ppg.
Redshirt freshman guard J.C. Hampton (13.9) is also a serious offensive threat for a team that is scoring 75 points a game but allowing 79.2.
After tonight’s contest, the Bucs host Northern Kentucky on Saturday. Then they make their last Gulf Coast swing in the A-Sun, with games at Stetson and Florida Gulf Coast, before starting a five-game homestead against North Florida on Jan. 23.