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Kelly Hodge

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Bucs set stage for impressive SoCon return

March 7th, 2014 6:37 pm by Kelly Hodge

Bucs set stage for impressive SoCon return

Murry Bartow says he’d like to play a little more basketball if the opportunity presents itself. What a difference a year makes.

East Tennessee State’s Bucs definitely put some fun back in the game this season, for their coach and their fans. They won 18 games after an 0-4 start, and maybe can add to the total if school officials decide to play in a postseason tournament, the CIT or CBI.

That’s not so bad when you’re coming off 10-22.

The Bucs made their final season in the Atlantic Sun Conference interesting right down to the end. The 89-88 double-overtime victory over Lipscomb in the quarterfinals was one of the most entertaining games played in the Dome in awhile. And the Bucs did everything but win in another frenetic atmosphere down at Florida Gulf Coast on Thursday night. Just a shot or two at the end would have made the difference in a 69-64 semifinal loss to the defending champs.

There’s some uncertainty ahead as ETSU prepares to rejoin the Southern Conference next season. Seeing old friends and foes on a regular basis should help stoke the fan base, which never got comfortable with the ever-changing A-Sun lineup. (Lipscomb may be missed.) Of course, the SoCon is going to have a different look, too, with stalwarts like Davidson, App State and Georgia Southern leaving the fold. But fans can still drive to a few games on the road, and make it home by midnight.

It remains to be seen how a move to Freedom Hall for all home games, as is currently being discussed, will be greeted. The three dates in the 40-year-old building early this season resulted in three wins — including one over Stephen F. Austin, which hasn’t lost in its 25 games since — and intrigued many fans, who enjoyed the “basketball environment.” But it also left some season-ticket holders grumbling about the setup and other issues. Making a full commitment in partnership with the city and jazzing up the place may sway the doubters.

It appears that ETSU has the pieces in place to be at least a 20-win team next season. Given the current state of SoCon basketball, the Bucs might even be the favorite coming in.

The nucleus of Rashawn Rembert, Jalen Riley and A.J. Merriweather — each of whom received postseason honors from the A-Sun — is a good place to start. Rembert tied for the scoring lead and tossed in 103 3-pointers, a school record. Riley was the league’s best foul shooter and, at 6-foot and 150 pounds, he also got to the line more than anyone else. Merriweather is simply the best freshman to pass through ETSU’s doors since Mike Smith and should only get better with age.

Filling around those guys, Lester Wilson is a valuable commodity when his jumper is on, which it often was the second half of the season. And Petey McClain has become a dependable, if unspectacular, point guard, starting 28 games as a sophomore. The ETSU offense wasn’t the same with McClain sitting out the A-Sun tournament with an ankle injury, though it was intriguing to see flashes of freshman Devin Harris’s potential as a playmaker.

Speaking of offense, the Bucs put up some impressive numbers this season. Their scoring average of 76.8 was up more than 14 points from the previous year, and their turnovers (11.9) are the best on record. They also shot almost 75 percent from the foul line.

Defensively, there’s work to be done. Opponents virtually matched the Bucs point for point, at 76.2 ppg. The team’s inability to get stops late in close games was a recurring theme.

A lot of that can be cured with more of a physical presence in the paint. Finding big men who have some length and can alter shots and rebound in traffic is a high priority.

Perhaps one of their early signees, 6-10 Karl Overstreet of Hargrave Military Academy, can make an immediate impact. And perhaps Isaac Banks will develop into that type of player; the 6-7 freshman was seldom seen this season, but showed glimpses of promise.

One can only wonder if Ron Giplaye will still be part of the mix. After undergoing heart surgery last summer, the 6-6, 250-pound Providence transfer saw only 23 minutes of action over five games. 

There is a big-time talent already waiting in the wings in Maurice O’Field. The 6-5 swingman from Cleveland, Ohio was an early signee before this season, but he didn’t qualify academically and the scholarship went elsewhere. O’Field enrolled at ETSU anyway and has been wowing everyone with his athleticism in pickup games on campus.

Bartow, who has one year left on his current contract, thinks the new recruiting class will be exceptional. So maybe a good team, an old arena and an old league all get better in a hurry. 

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