Scott Wagers says there won’t be any noticeable differences when he takes over the reins of the East Tennessee State basketball team for one game.
Wagers, a longtime assistant at ETSU, will step in for head coach Murry Bartow as the Bucs play host to Kennesaw State today at 6 p.m. Bartow is in Birmingham attending his father’s funeral. Gene Bartow, the Hall of Fame college basketball coach who succeeded John Wooden at UCLA and won 647 games, died on Tuesday after a battle with cancer.
“We’ll do the same stuff,” Wagers said. “It’s Murry’s team and we’ll do the same things we always do, same offense, same defense. Murry and I are on the same page. Our whole philosophy is the same. We’re both defensive guys and we like to push the ball. It’ll be like he’s standing there.”
The Bucs (7-7 overall, 2-2 Atlantic Sun Conference) are coming off a couple of impressive performances, most recently Saturday’s 76-61 victory over Mercer. ETSU led by 29 at one point.
Wagers’ job is to keep building the momentum that has allowed ETSU to overcome an 0-2 start in the A-Sun with two double-digit victories. Bartow says he’s leaving the program in good hands.
“Message No. 1 is let’s keep it going,” Bartow said. “We’ve got a very unusual mid-major staff. I wouldn’t know of another mid-major staff across the country where all four have been head coaches. Every one of us has been a head coach.
“If you are a head coach with three young assistants, you might be concerned. But, Scott is going to be the acting coach for the game and he was an incredibly successful high school coach in Tampa. He has two coaches by his side who have been very successful. They won’t miss a beat. I have a lot of confidence in them.”
Bartow won’t be at the Minidome, but he’ll still be on the minds of his players and assistants.
“It’ll be different because of the circumstances,” Wagers said. “It will be kind of a sad day. Your boss and your friend -- and he’s more of a friend now -- he’s going through this. It’s tough for all of us.”
Adam Sollazzo, ETSU’s senior point guard, says the team has one mission today: Win for the head coach. “It’s gonna be different without Coach here,” Sollazzo said. “It makes it a special game for us to try to win it for him to show him we care about him. We’re a tight family here. We want to try to win it for him.”
The day after Gene Bartow’s death, the Bucs rolled past USCUpstate for their first A-Sun victory. When Sollazzo left the game late in the second half after the outcome was secured, he gave Murry Bartow a hug. The coach patted him on the back.
“During the starting lineups, I told him we were gonna get this one for him,” Sollazzo said. “I was just exhausted at the end. I wanted him to know that was for him.”
Kennesaw State comes in on a different kind of roll. New coach Lewis Preston is still searching for his first A-Sun victory. The Owls are 3-13 overall, 0-5 in the league. They’ve lost four in a row and 11 of their last 12.
Preston replaced Tony Ingle, who guided the program from a Division II power to its current status. When Ingle was at the helm, Kennesaw State and ETSU had become quite a rivalry with several games turning into contentious affairs.
The Owls are led by Markeith Cummings, a 6-foot-7 junior, who averages 16.1 points a game, second in the league. Cummings recently surpassed Ronnell Wooten as Kennesaw State’s career scoring leader in Division I.
Spencer Dixon, a 6-foot senior, averages 13.3 while Delbert Love, a 6-foot freshman, averages 10.8.
Sollazzo’s production has been going through the roof as of late. The senior scored 23 points on Saturday to raise his average to 15.6, third in the A-Sun. The Bucs have three other players averaging in double figures: Marcus Dubose 12.2, Tommy Hubbard 10.5 and Isiah Brown 10.5.
The Bucs are averaging 9.9 steals a game, ranking fourth in the country. They’re 5-0 at home.
“We have good momentum right now,” Bartow said. “The attitude is good. They like playing at home and our press works better at home. You want to keep it going and ride that wave while you can.”