Judging from Tennessee’s recent performances, this might be a good time to venture down to Thompson-Boling Arena and win a basketball game.
That’s where East Tennessee State will find itself tonight as it tries to snap a six-game losing streak to the Vols. Tipoff is 7 o’clock.
The Bucs have won in Southeastern Conference venues each of the last two years, at Arkansas and Mississippi State, but it’s been 20 years since they won in Knoxville. This matchup with the Vols looks like more of a toss-up than some others, considering what has gone on the last couple of weeks.
While the Bucs (5-5) seem to have gotten their act together with a pair of wire-to-wire victories, the Vols (4-6) looked shaky in losing four in a row before barely escaping Asheville at home Wednesday night. ETSU coach Murry Bartow is cautiously optimistic about getting his first win in the series tonight.
“It’s winnable, but I think we’ll have to play our best game of the year,” Bartow said Thursday. “We can’t go in there and play a mediocre game and expect to win.”
Maybe not, but one can’t be sure what to expect of Cuonzo Martin’s first team at UT.
The Vols have battled Duke, Memphis and Pittsburgh to the wire. They’ve also lost at home to Austin Peay, which was 1-9 at the time, and stumbled at Oakland and College of Charleston.
They trailed Asheville by as many as 11 before pulling out a 72-68 victory.
“I know they’ve struggled some,” said Bartow, “but you look at the talent level down there … they’re pretty talented. They have some athletes and they have some big bodies. I’d say physically they’re similar to Virginia Tech.”
Bartow ticked off several of the Vols that are fairly familiar to ETSU fans — Golden, Tatum, Maymon, Hall. All were fairly high-profile recruits who have had varying degrees of success in Knoxville.
Trae Golden, the erratic sophomore point guard, currently leads the Vols in scoring (13.5) and assists (5.7). Jordan McRae (13.0), Jeronne Maymon (12.9) and Cameron Tatum (10.1) are also scoring in double figures.
Maymon, the 6-7, 265-pound junior, turned in one of the most impressive individual lines in college basketball this season – 32 points and 20 rebounds – against Memphis. He’s scored nine and 10 points, respectively, the last two games.
The Bucs got their leading scorer, Marcus Dubose, untracked Monday night in a 83-43 romp over Milligan College. The junior guard shot the ball with confidence and finished with a game-high 20 points – his third game of the season with at least 20.
Now they’d like to get Tommy Hubbard going. He’s scored just 18 points on 15 shots over the last three games.
Hubbard, the team’s leading scorer two seasons ago, has seen his average dip to 9.7 this season.
“We’ve made a big point with him that we need more scoring,” said Bartow. “For our team to be capable of winning 20 games, Tommy Hubbard needs to score 16 to 18 almost every night out. He can’t do that if he’s taking just four or five shots a game.”
The coach said they’ve looked back at Hubbard’s junior year (he redshirted last season) and studied his offensive production. Many baskets were of the catch-and-shoot variety from mid-range. He was also effective getting the feed while slashing to the basket.
Those moves have been fewer and farther between so far this season.
“I just need to be more aggressive,” said Hubbard, already soaked with sweat from shooting before practice began Thursday. “Sometimes I’m trying to get other guys involved when I should be taking more shots myself. I’ve told coach I really don’t need designed plays; I can get points off offensive rebounds or on the break.”
The Bucs will need Hubbard’s toughness and a strong showing from forward Isiah Brown to combat UT’s size. Lukas Poderis will also be a key player off the bench.
The team’s best player lately has been point guard Adam Sollazzo. The 6-6 senior scored a career-high 23 points in the victory at Appalachian State and then had 18 against Milligan.
For the season, Sollazzo is averaging 13.1 points, 4.7 assists and 6.2 rebounds.
Notes: Tennessee leads the series 11-2 and has won six in a row since ETSU scored back-to-back victories in Knoxville in 1989 and ’91.
The teams last played two years ago, with the 11th-ranked Vols prevailing 78-66. Hubbard had 11 points and Sheldon Cooley 10 in that one for the Bucs. …
Reserve forward J.C. Ward apparently won’t play tonight with a foot injury. Bartow said again Thursday that the junior should be a key part of the rotation but hasn’t been in good enough shape to contribute.
“Part of it is injuries and part is him being overweight,” said Bartow. “He’s about 260 now, and it would help him to lose 10 to 15 pounds. But in his defense, it’s hard to do the things he needs to do to lose the weight when he’s got problems with his feet and ankles.” …
ETSU ranks fifth nationally in steals, at 10.3 per game. Cooley accounts for 2.6 of those, which is 18th among individuals. …
The Vols have scored at least 90 points against the Bucs in three of the last four games. …
A man who can relate well to both programs was courtside for Thursday’s practice in the Dome.
Buzz Peterson, the former UT head coach and ETSU assistant, was in town to help his daughter get settled into a new apartment. She’ll start school at ETSU next semester.
Peterson is currently in his second season as head coach at North Carolina-Wilmington. He’s one of Bartow’s closest friends in the coaching business.