East Tennessee State basketball fans will enjoy a little more action at home this season, and even the guarantee games on the road — Virginia Tech, Tennessee, Clemson — might be worth the drive.
The schedule released Monday includes 13 dates in the Dome, including matchups with Appalachian State and Troy the first week of the season. Another home game of interest is James Madison on Jan. 30, which will be the Bucs’ only non-conference date the last two months of the season.
“Last year we were a little short on home games,” said coach Murry Bartow. “When I look at this schedule, it’s intriguing to play a few more here. And there’s a newness to it, with Troy from the Sun Belt and James Madison, one of the best teams in the Colonial.
“No. 2, the guarantee games we always have to play are interesting games and drivable for our fans. They’re not a long way away.”
The first of those is the season opener Nov. 12 at Virginia Tech. The teams haven’t met since 2001, and the Hokies are now coached by Seth Greenburg, one of Bartow’s closest friends in the business.
“We’ve been talking for a number of years about playing,” said Bartow, “and it just worked out this year. He needed a game and we needed a guarantee game. For our fans, it’s a great game because it’s close.”
Also on the schedule is Tennessee, which returns after a two-year absence. The Vols, under new coach Cuonzo Martin, host the Bucs two days before Christmas.
Bartow hopes to cultivate a friendly relationship with Martin, and he already has one with UT director of basketball operations Houston Fancher, the former App State head coach.
“Anytime you can play the University of Tennessee, it’s good for the program, good for the players and good for the fans,” said Bartow. “Obviously, with Tennessee being so close, it’s a no-brainer for us.
“We’d love to talk to them about the possibility of coming to Johnson City. Houston Fancher is handling their schedule for Cuonzo, and he’s a great friend. We’re going to have to do a two-for-one, or potentially a three-for-one, and we’ll have to analyze the pros and cons of all that.”
After the visit to Knoxville, the Bucs will break for Christmas before playing at Clemson on New Year’s Day. Then comes three straight Atlantic Sun Conference games at home in five days — Upstate, Mercer and Kennesaw State – and it’s a steady diet of league games the rest of the way.
The Bucs are coming off a 24-12 season, and they’ll be rebuilding to a certain extent after losing Mike Smith, Micah Williams and Justin Tubbs to graduation.
The chemistry will certainly be in question as the team heads off for an early six-game road trip that begins at Charlotte on Nov. 22.
“We talk about it every year,” said Bartow, “but we’re always going to have guarantee games on the road early. You win as many as you can, survive the best you can.”
As for the non-conference games against other mid-majors, there is intrigue with some and old connections with others.
The Bucs and Troy have never played but will tangle twice in 10 days. James Madison hasn’t been on the schedule since 2002. The Bucs continue a four-year deal with Tennessee Tech, an old Ohio Valley Conference nemesis, that began here last season with a 73-60 ETSU victory.
And, of course, App State is another “no-brainer” as far as Bartow is concerned. The teams will play here on Nov. 15 and in Boone on Dec. 10.
“Anytime we can play them, for our programs and the history of the game, it just makes sense,” he said. “Jason (Capel, the Mountaineers’ new coach) and I talked and decided it was in our best interests to play twice this year.”
In the other quick home-and-home, they’ll play at Troy on Nov. 29 – 10 days after the first meeting.
“The Troy thing just came together,” said Bartow. “They were desperately looking for games, and we were as well. We started talking about home-and-home in separate years but decided to kill two birds with one stone.”
The most anticipated home games in the A-Sun are Belmont on Jan. 23, two days after Lipscomb comes in, and Jacksonville on Feb. 13.
The Bucs have exhibitions scheduled with Tusculum (Oct. 29) and Carson-Newman (Nov. 5).