Whether it’s been a good, bad or mediocre season, college basketball coaches always look like they’ve been through the ringer by the time March rolls around.
For Murry Bartow, this year was no exception.
The East Tennessee State coach saw his team bow out of the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament Friday night with a hard-fought 69-61 loss to top-seeded Belmont in the semifinals. That left the Bucs with a 17-14 record, snapping a string of three straight 20-win seasons, and left Bartow feeling a bit defensive about any notions that this team underachieved.
“It’s not easy to win 17 games,” he said during the post-game press conference in Macon, Ga. “I get a little annoyed, to be quite frank. People say we’ve had a down year; it’s not. I know we’ve spoiled everybody, winning 20 games a year, but it’s not easy winning 17, 18 games. It’s not.”
ETSU fans are always going to expect more than 17 wins — and a 10-8 conference record. After bearing witness to nine NCAA tournament appearances, they expect championships. And it helps if the Bucs look good doing it, like those guys down at Belmont.
Bartow set the bar for himself high by winning 27 games and a Southern Conference championship his first season here. Two more trips to the NCAAs have followed, and there has been only one losing season in his nine years.
So yes, this qualified as a mediocre team.
The question now is whether things will be any easier for the Bucs next season. They don’t shape up that way. In fact, some major retooling is in order.
The team’s three departing seniors — Adam Sollazzo, Isiah Brown and Tommy Hubbard — accounted for more than 37 points and 19 rebounds a game this season. And there hasn’t been much grooming of reserves, since the Bucs went with a seven-man rotation for most of the way. Seldom-seen freshmen like Rashawn Rembert and John Walton, who came in touted as impactful recruits, may still feel like freshmen when practice starts up again next fall.
With Sollazzo departing after an all-conference season, the point guard position is certainly wide open. Redshirt freshman Ryan Woumn doesn’t appear to be the answer — he played a total of 13 minutes this season — and it’s hard to imagine Bartow turning the reins of the offense over to a kid right out of high school, like Petey McClain, the early signee from Alabama.
Bartow and his staff seem to recruit well year in and year out, but he’s slow to develop the youngsters once they get on campus. They generally go to the end of the line. The coach constantly says he has to expand the rotation but has trouble making it happen in the heat of battle.
As a result, the Bucs tend to find themselves in situations like Friday night against Belmont — tired and in foul trouble, with no bench. In the team’s two games in Macon, the starters were each playing about 35 minutes. It’s hard to beat Rick Byrd’s teams that are at least 10 deep with that approach, especially with the season on the line.
In the Atlantic Sun it is, after all, about those three days in March.
At least the Bucs won’t have to worry about Belmont anymore.
The Bruins are off to the Ohio Valley Conference after winning five of the last seven A-Sun championships, including Saturday’s 83-69 victory over Florida Gulf Coast. They beat ETSU seven straight on the way out.
The Bucs will still have their hands full with some others. Five different conference opponents split with them this season, and an upstart like Gulf Coast, seeded sixth, was resourceful enough to get to the final in its first year of postseason eligibility.
It will be interesting to see how ETSU’s new roster fleshes out. There could be as many as four scholarships available, not counting McClain and Mario Stramaglia, the other early signee.
Will Sheldon Cooley return to the team? The junior guard who started 26 games this season remains on indefinite suspension for his role in that bizarre armed robbery at his apartment two weeks ago. His roommate, junior forward J.C. Ward, has since dropped out of school.
If Cooley returns, he’ll be one of five shooting guards, along with Marcus Dubose, Jarvis Jones, Rembert and Stramaglia.
Dubose, the junior-college transfer, will hopefully become a more consistent scorer after a year of Division I basketball. He finished strong to average almost 11 points a game.
Jones is also capable of expanding his presence on the offensive end next season.
But there is nothing in the way of a post scorer on the current roster. Junior Lukas Poderis played a lot this season but averaged about four points and four rebounds. The ETSU staff may again be looking for big men in the juco ranks, although that hasn’t worked well for them lately.
Bartow, of course, will ponder all this while conference champions around the country and their fans start getting revved up for March Madness. This may be his most important offseason yet.
Kelly Hodge is managing sports editor of the Johnson City Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.