East Tennessee State basketball coach Murry Bartow challenged Sheldon Cooley to think big coming into this season.
The junior guard has tried to take that to heart.
Cooley has been outstanding, if not yet star quality, through the Bucs’ first two games. He’s scored in double figures in both and has 10 steals, including a career-high seven Tuesday night in an 81-68 victory over Appalachian State.
“He’s been tremendous,” Bartow said Friday. “The whole message with Sheldon all preseason was, We want you to be a star. If you look at all four games — the two exhibitions and the first two in the regular season — he’s just done a lot of good things.”
The Tampa, Fla., native, was a complementary guard as a sophomore, averaging 4.5 points and 1.6 assists. He made seven starts.
With the team’s top three scorers lost to graduation, Cooley knew he could work his way into a more prominent role this season.
“I think staying here over the summer has played a big part,” he said. “I really worked hard on my outside shooting and scoring the ball. I’m confident in what I’m doing.”
At 6-foot-3 and 180 pounds, Cooley has quick hands and is excellent in the open court. He has been starting at shooting guard but also sees a fair amount of action at the point when Adam Sollazzo takes a break.
“Right now I’m a little more comfortable at 2, off the ball a little bit,” he said. “But I’ll play wherever coach wants me. I don’t mind playing point guard.”
Cooley and the Bucs get back to business today when they host Troy in the first-ever meeting between the teams. Both have split their first two games.
The Bucs won’t play at home again for another month and can use all the momentum they can generate for the six-game road swing ahead. It starts next Tuesday night in Charlotte.
“We always put a premium on home games,” said Bartow. “We know how hard it is to win games out on the road.”
The Trojans of the Sun Belt Conference are trying to bounce back from an 8-21 campaign. They battled at Texas Tech in their opener before losing 90-85, then went home to Alabama and beat up on LaGrange 116-63.
Coach Don Maestri’s team has already launched 60 3-pointers, making 26.
“They’re very athletic, and very dangerous behind the arc,” said Bartow. “They’ve got some nice players; I call them ballers because they make plays off the dribble.
And they have a great point guard in (Will) Weathers. He’s probably an all-conference guy.”
The 6-1 junior is averaging 14.5 points and 4.5 assists. Junior guard Alan Jones leads the team in scoring (16.0) and has already made eight 3-pointers.
The Trojans are also getting double-figure scoring from junior forward Justin Wright (12.5) and senior forward Steven Cunningham (11.0).
Bartow thinks this first-ever matchup is intriguing.
“From a fan standpoint, this will be an incredibly entertaining game,” he said. “It’s two teams with a lot of similarities.”
They’ll meet again at Troy on Nov. 29 — the second game of ETSU’s upcoming road trip.
Maestri is in his 29th season as head coach at Troy, with 486 wins to show for it. He has guided the Trojans from a fledgling Division II program to champions in three different Division I conferences.
They won the Sun Belt regular-season crown just two seasons ago.