As season openers in Atlantic Coast Conference territory go, today’s matchup at Virginia Tech appears fairly palatable for the East Tennessee State basketball team.
The Bucs are 3-13 all-time in the series with the Hokies but have won two of the last three games. And the loss was an 81-75 overtime affair in Blacksburg in 2000.
The teams get together again today in Cassell Coliseum. A healthy contingent of ETSU fans may even make the drive up I-81 to see how the early product matches up to preseason expectations.
Tipoff is 2 o’clock. The game will be streamed live on ESPN3.
“I think it’s a great game for us,” said ETSU coach Murry Bartow. “You look at all our money games and they’re so close. To be able to play Tennessee, Clemson and Virginia Tech … those three games make a lot of sense.
“This is a good opener for our team and our fans.”
It might be better if the Bucs were at full strength. Three players in their rotation have been out for more than a week with injuries.
All three — guards Adam Sollazzo and Marcus Dubose, and forward Lukas Poderis — were back at practice Friday, though in various stages of recovery.
“I can play,” said Dubose, who broke a rib in the team’s first exhibition, two weeks ago. “It’ll hurt, but I can play.”
Bartow said Dubose made it only halfway through practice Thursday and couldn’t have played a game that night. But the junior could find himself in the starting lineup today, along with Sollazzo, Sheldon Cooley, Tommy Hubbard and Isiah Brown.
The Bucs could also go bigger with Poderis or J.C. Ward.
“If we could play smaller in this game, we’d be hard to guard,” said Bartow. “The problem is at the other end.”
The Hokies are also struggling with injuries.
Point guard Erick Green strained an Achilles tendon in practice a week ago and isn’t expected to play today, though he’s officially a game-time decision. Shooting guard Marquis Rankin is out with a knee injury.
And senior forward JT Thompson will miss the season after tearing an ACL for the second straight year.
Of course, coach Seth Greenberg still has a roster of ACC players. Seven of them are at least 220 pounds; the Bucs have two.
“I know they’ve had some injury issues, but they have ACC talent and we’re playing them on their home floor,” said Bartow. “Seth has always had really athletic players, going back to when he was at Long Beach State. He just has a lot of youth this year, but the players are big and thick.”
Green, a 6-3 junior, is the Hokies’ only returning player who scored in double figures last season. He averaged 11.6 ppg and was second on the team in assists.
If Green isn’t fit to play today, sophomore Tyrone Garland will move into the starting lineup. Senior Dorenzo Hudson, at 6-5 and 220 pounds, is a tough matchup at shooting guard, and senior Victor Davila (6-8, 245) and sophomore Cadarian Raines (6-9, 238) are beefy senior forwards.
The Tech fans are reportedly high on spindly freshman forward Dorian Finney-Smith, who possesses a lot of skills at 6-8 and 192 pounds.
The talent level may be a shock to some of Bartow’s newcomers — the four freshmen and Dubose, the junior-college transfer. To the veterans, it won’t.
Brown, for example, has a high standard when it comes to opponents who intimidate. The fifth-year senior has been around long enough to mix things up with the notorious big men of Pittsburgh and Kentucky.
“They don’t get no bigger than DeJuan Blair and DeMarcus Cousins,” said Brown. “Once you’ve seen those guys and know what NBA talent is about, you don’t say the rest of these guys are monstrous.”
Cousins had already moved on to the NBA last season when the Bucs opened at Kentucky. Brown erupted for 25 points and 14 rebounds, career highs, in an 88-65 loss.
“That gave me confidence to play against any of these big teams,” he said.
The Bucs went on to win 24 games but were unable to defend their Atlantic Sun Conference championship. They were picked to finish second in the league this season, behind Belmont.
The Hokies, meanwhile, went 22-12 and also missed out on the NCAA tournament, for the fourth straight season. They were picked sixth in the ACC preseason poll.
“I just want to see who’s able to step up and compete with them,” said Hubbard, another fifth-year senior who is coming off a redshirt season. “There are a lot of unknowns about this team, a lot of questions to be answered. We’ve got a bunch of new guys.
“I will say this is the best shooting team we’ve had since I’ve been here.”
Bartow and Greenberg are old acquaintances who have talked about getting together for a game for the last few years. This season it finally fell into place, right at the start.
“Seth and I are good friends,” said Bartow. “We’ve been to a lot of Nike camps together and played a lot of golf together. When he was at South Florida, I was at UAB, so we competed against each other there.
“It’s good that we were able to work things out and play again.”