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A.J. Merriweather may have a big motor on the basketball court, but he admits the tank isn’t always full at this stage of his career. East Tennessee State’s slender 6-2 freshman still has a lot to learn.
Merriweather ran into a January lull where he went five straight games without scoring in double figures, and his rebound totals were down, too. He looked more like his old, energized self on Sunday, with 14 points and nine rebounds in an 86-73 victory over Kennesaw State.
“I had been struggling,” he said Wednesday before practice in the Dome. “I wasn’t doing what got me here. It was an energy thing, but more mental than physical. People are starting to adjust to what I do, so I have to do things better.
“I want to be a hard scout. I want to be able to drive and also shoot the three, not an easy guy to defend. I wasn’t a natural shooter, so that part has taken a lot of dedication.”
The hard work is showing.
Merriweather leads the Bucs in 3-point field goal percentage, having made 11 of 23 (.478), and is a 52 percent shooter overall. He’s also the leading rebounder (6.2) and carries a double-digit scoring average (10.8) in his first season of college basketball.
“In high school, I wasn’t much of a scorer. I was a team player,” he said. “Here I have pretty much the same role — doing whatever the team needs. I’m just trying to be efficient and work hard every day.”
ETSU coach Murry Bartow isn’t sure what the ceiling might be for Merriweather. The 18-year-old from Jackson is already a fixture in the starting lineup and seems to have all the intangibles. He’s playing more than 27 minutes a game.
“A.J. is a real student of the game, which is pretty unusual for a young guy just coming in,” said Bartow. “We talk a lot about his energy level, but he’s also a hard worker. He’s made himself into a pretty good shooter, working with (assistant coach) Thomas (Carr). He just puts in a lot of time on getting better.”
Merriweather and his teammates climbed on a bus late Wednesday afternoon and headed toward Northern Kentucky, where they’ll face the Norse tonight in Highland Heights, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. They were due to arrive on the heels of a winter storm that paralyzed much of that area.
On Friday the team swings down to Nashville to prepare for another Atlantic Sun Conference game Saturday night at Lipscomb.
The Bucs (12-11, 5-5) have won three of their last four games and stand fifth in the league. Of course, it’s a precarious position. They’re only a game out of third place, and a game out of eighth.
“We just gotta stay focused, keep scoring the ball and try to improve our defense,” said Bartow. “We have to win some more games.”
The Bucs have surrendered at least 90 points in three of their last five games and are allowing 75.7 overall. This season, at least, they’re able to outscore some people.
Northern Kentucky (8-15, 4-7) wouldn’t seek a shootout tonight. The Norse are averaging 68.1 points, which is eighth in the A-Sun, and rank in the lower third of most offensive categories.
This will be ETSU’s second visit to the 10,000-seat Bank of Kentucky Center, easily the nicest arena in the conference. The Bucs slogged to a 49-44 victory there last year to snap a nine-game losing streak.
In the first meeting between this season, Rashawn Rembert scored 19 points in a 74-65 ETSU victory. Hunter Harris, Kinard Gadsden-Gilliard and Merriweather were also in double figures.
Rembert, at 15.5 ppg., ranks fourth in the conference in scoring. The Bucs are averaging 75.1 and are the top free-throw shooting team, at 72.7 percent. They have more makes (419) than Stetson (417) and Florida Gulf Coast (418) have attempts.
The Norse, meanwhile, are grinding away. They got off to a 1-7 start this season and have struggled lately, winning just one of their last six games. That came at home against lowly Kennesaw State.
Junior guard Jordan Jackson leads the Norse at 14.5. Tyler White, a sophomore guard, is also scoring in double figures at 10.5.
“My feeling on them is the same as it’s always been,” said Bartow. “They’re very well-coached, a team that doesn’t beat themselves. They don’t have a ton of size, but what they have is really good penetrators, guys who can go by you and make a play.”