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Sports Columns ETSU Sports Joe Avento

Asheville arena, So Con are natural fits for Bucs

March 9th, 2014 7:28 pm by Joe Avento

Asheville arena, So Con are natural fits for Bucs

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Seeing Calvin Talford at the Southern Conference basketball tournament over the weekend was a fitting reminder of the event’s past.

It also foreshadowed the tournament’s future.

“Hey Calvin,” one fan yelled. “Did you ever lose here?”

“No sir,” Talford replied. “Twelve and 0. Those were some good times, good memories.”

Talford’s former team, East Tennessee State, has a chance to build some more memories next season after it rejoins the Southern Conference.

When the Bucs next play in a conference tournament, it will be in the SoCon, and it will be at the U.S. Cellular Center, formerly known as the Asheville Civic Center.

It seems a natural fit for both the conference and ETSU.

It’s the same arena where the Bucs had some of their greatest moments, dominating the league’s postseason tournament with four championships in a row from 1989-92. Their fans made the trek to Asheville by the thousands. The 6,500-seat arena seemed to have 6,000 ETSU fans at times. It was certainly a home away from home.

“I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard that comment, that how great the tournament was when ETSU and Marshall were in the league and how people used to pack this place,” Southern Conference Commissioner John Iamarino said. “The games were so exciting. What we’re trying to do is re-create that. We’ve taken some steps, and I think certainly getting ETSU back is going to help. Our goal is to try to get those days back.”

The 40-year-old arena has undergone between $12 million and $14 million of renovations, leading to the conference to return the tournament to Asheville after 16 years away. In between, it had been held in Greensboro, N.C.; Greenville, S.C.; North Charleston, S.C.; Charlotte and Chattanooga.

The event came back to Asheville in 2012 and is committed through 2017 after a new three-year deal was recently struck.

“We wanted the tournament back,” said Sam Powers, Asheville’s director of economic development. “The Southern Conference said they want to come back if we fix up the building. The community said if you come back, we will fix up the building. It all happened together.”

The renovations included lighting, seating, club suites, meeting rooms and locker rooms among other things. A new court which was used in Indianapolis in the NCAA tournament last year was installed.

“They’ve done everything we asked,” Iamarino said.

ETSU is leaving the Atlantic Sun Conference for the SoCon after this school year is finished, although it will be a different SoCon with Davidson, Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and Elon leaving and Mercer and VMI joining.

“I know ETSU has a very solid fan base and that they travel well,” Iamarno said. “I heard from some ETSU coaches that it was frustrating to drive by Furman and Wofford on their way to Florida. Now they can play Furman and Wofford.

“I think ETSU gives us the ability to rekindle some great rivalries. They’ll give us a fan base that’s willing to travel. We’re really happy to have them.”

ETSU fans could get a chance to sample the new-look arena during the regular season. Talks are underway for a four-team event that would bring the Bucs together with Western Carolina, Appalachian State and UNC-Asheville.

It would just be a warmup for the main event in March.

“A lot of the community leaders remember the sense of importance the tournament had when it was here, and a good part of that was because of East Tennessee State,” Powers said. “They were playing really good basketball. Folks have that sense of what the tournament was like, and it’s important to get that back.”

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