NASHVILLE -- If a sense of urgency hadn’t set in for the East Tennessee State basketball team before a 22-point loss at Belmont on Saturday, it should have now.
With three games left in the regular season, the Bucs find themselves tied for sixth place in the Atlantic Sun Conference with Lipscomb. The teams play tonight at Allen Arena, and the loser will be ever closer to the cut line for the league tournament.
For the Bucs, who have lost three of their last four, the remaining games are at home against Stetson and Florida Gulf Coast -- teams that have already beaten them this season. There’s a small margin of error left for the team that was picked second in the preseason.
“We’re trying to win enough games to get to the tournament, not playing for seeding,” coach Murry Bartow said after the 80-58 loss at Belmont. “I still think we can win all three. It’s doable, not stupid or crazy.”
Nor is losing all three out of the question, considering the way this team struggles to score.
The Bucs have been held under 60 points in their last three losses, and under 50 in one of them. When their three seniors combine for just 27, like they did against the front-running Bruins, good defense isn’t nearly enough.
“It’s a broken record,” said Bartow. “We just really, really, really struggle to put the ball in the basket.”
If there’s anything positive about tonight’s matchup with Lipscomb, it’s that Jordan Burgason won’t be wearing purple. The Bisons’ sharpshooting senior guard was kicked out of school for unspecified reasons last week.
All Burgason did in the first game against ETSU was score a career-high 33 points, with nine 3-pointers, in a 73-65 victory. He was averaging 16.4 points and leading the nation in 3-point shooting percentage when he was dismissed.
The Bisons have lost two of the three games since. South Carolina Upstate beat them 62-61 here Saturday night when Ty Greene buried a 3-pointer with a second left.
“It’s not all of a sudden an easy game without Burgason,” said Bartow. “But the first game he had 33 with nine threes. I’d certainly rather try to guard them without Burgason.”
The job should be much easier than trying to guard Belmont’s arsenal of scorers.
Working the ball inside out, the Bruins hit 11 3-pointers against the Bucs and had five men score in double figures. Seven played double-figure minutes.
That’s a typical night for Rick Byrd’s team, which has won its last eight games.
“I think it’s the kind of young men we have in the program,” said Byrd. “They’re extremely unselfish. We have zero issues about playing time. Everybody stays involved and engaged. As a result, you never know who is going to be the leading scorer on a given night.”
The defending champs claimed first place in the league outright when suddenly potent Jacksonville upset Mercer. The Dolphins are now just a game out of the last playoff spot, but closing fast.
The Bucs better not look back.