Bucs feeling pain of letting automatic postseason bids slip away

Joe Avento • Mar 6, 2018 at 6:56 PM

Losing in the Southern Conference championship game was painful, but it was just one of a series of costly losses for the East Tennessee State basketball team down the stretch.

When the Bucs dropped all three of their final home games, it cost them a share of the conference’s regular-season championship. Along with that would have come an automatic NIT bid, and when they woke up Tuesday morning, not having that likely hurt — not as much as losing out on an NCAA bid, but it hurt nonetheless.

Had the Bucs won just one of those three games — against The Citadel, Wofford or Furman — they would have shared first place, earned at least an NIT bid and their season would still be alive.

“That’s the hard part and I hate it,” ETSU coach Steve Forbes said.

SoCon Commissioner John Iamarino said ETSU will be in the conversation for an NIT bid, but most people at U.S. Cellular Center, site of the conference tournament, seemed to think an at-large bid was a long shot for a SoCon team with a 25-9 record. A long shot still means some shot, but nobody at ETSU is holding their breath.

“I think we’re really good,” Forbes said. “We can beat a lot of teams. There’s going to be some teams that are going to get in there that we could beat. I’m not ever going to disparage another team or coach for getting in a tournament, because I know how hard it is.”

We already know the ETSU team will have a different look next year after losing half the roster to graduation. And when they say graduation, they mean it. All the seniors and one red-shirt junior are scheduled to graduate in May.

The one spot on the team that might hold the most intrigue is the head coaching position. Forbes’ name will undoubtedly come up in a few job searches.

Forbes recently signed a contract extension that gave him a hefty raise. Counting salary, stipend and an annual retention bonus, he is scheduled to make at least $650,000 a season. That takes a lot of schools out of the equation if they wanted to bid for his services.

“I already signed my future,” Forbes said Monday night when asked the inevitable question. “I signed a contract to be the head basketball coach at ETSU until 2023. Hopefully I’m still alive by then. If I am, they’ll have to pay me.

“I have a great job. I love it here.”

Forbes’ name came up as a possible replacement for Andy Kennedy at Ole Miss. That’s the kind of job it might take to lure Forbes away from ETSU, where he has won 76 games in his first three years as a Division I head coach.

“I can’t control the rumors,” Forbes said. “When people talk about things like that, that means we’ve got a good program. They don’t talk about guys who finished last in the league.

“Honestly, like I’ve told everybody, if a life-changing offer came, I would discuss it with my family and my agent and Scott Carter and Dr. Noland and we’d figure it out. I’m very fortunate to have the job that I have. I love my job.”

ETSU will have a lot of talent on the roster next year, starting with SoCon all-freshman selections Bo Hodges and Mladen Armus being sophomores, junior college All-American Jeromy Rodriguez returning from shoulder surgery and former David Crockett star Patrick Good becoming eligible after transferring from Appalachian State.

The team will have to find an identity after losing Desonta Bradford, the Bucs’ undisputed leader this season. Bradford grew as much as any player in recent ETSU history from the time he was a shy freshman to his senior year when he was a silent killer of sorts, an unassuming superstar who was deservedly voted as the SoCon’s player of the year by the coaches.

“ETSU has meant a lot to me,” Bradford said in Monday’s postgame press conference, fighting tears. “Coming from a small town in Humbolt where a lot of people don’t really make it out and do stuff like this, it means the world to me that they took me with open arms.”

What was likely the final game of the season, the 62-47 loss to UNC Greensboro in the SoCon championship game, was a struggle from the get-go for the Bucs. They never could solve the Spartans’ three-quarter-court press, which is not designed to create turnovers, but to slow a team from getting into its offense.

“I felt like the first team to 50 was going to win and we just couldn't get there,” Forbes said. “You have to give Greensboro credit.

“Our guys battled. When you put so much into something, it’s really hard to lose like that. These guys ripped off 16 wins in a row. You can’t put a price tag on something like that. Unfortunately, you remember the last one.”

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