ETSU fans dream about deep NCAA run

Joe Avento • Mar 26, 2018 at 1:00 PM

 When East Tennessee State basketball fans watch the NCAA Tournament, it has to be with mixed emotions.

During a 16-game winning streak that tied the school record, ETSU appeared to have the type of team that might be able to make one of those surprising deep NCAA runs mid-major schools do from time to time.

A loss to UNC Greensboro in the Southern Conference tournament championship game left the Bucs out of the picture. As upsets ruin everybody’s NCAA brackets, the Bucs’ fans can only dream.

If they had just gotten into the tournament, maybe they could have made some noise. The ongoing theme in the upset-filled event has been “why not us?” Underdogs always seem to have a chance. Some are blown off the court, but some pull off memorable victories.

It’s been 26 years since ETSU has won an NCAA Tournament game, but with Steve Forbes coaching the team, many fans feel that streak can end in the very near future.

The goals have changed at ETSU. When the Bucs didn’t make the field for the NCAA or NIT this season, they packed up their sneakers and called it a season, choosing not to play in any of the other postseason tournaments. That’s the environment Forbes has created — think big or go home.

Keeping Forbes around might be ETSU’s biggest basketball victory. Every time a job opens at a high-level school, his name will pop up. When you win 76 games in your first three years as a Division I head coach, that’s bound to happen.

With that in mind, the university bumped Forbes’ pay and extended his contract, hoping to entice the coach to stay and finish what he started.

“We have to always be looking to see how can we invest to gain a winning edge, within the rules, and keep that edge,” ETSU Athletic Director Scott Carter said. “When you have a leader like Steve Forbes and some of our other leaders, we have to do everything within our means and power to serve the institution. If we’re not being proactive, you can bet our peers and rivals are because everybody’s looking for an edge on their opponents.”

Carter hired a football coach, Randy Sanders, in his first major move as athletic director. Sanders comes to a team in its fourth year back after the program had been eliminated for 12 years.

Sanders brought a winning pedigree with him and is expected to continue the strides his predecessor, Carl Torbush, made when restarting the program.

It’s been 22 years since ETSU’s last football playoff appearance — the win over Villanova and the loss at Montana — and Sanders’ hiring has people hoping they can return soon. The Southern Conference is strong enough to get multiple teams in the playoffs every year. Three SoCon teams earned bids last season. Four made it in 2016.

The Bucs will also be making some money on the field by playing teams from higher conferences. In the next few years, they’ll be playing so-called “money games” at Tennessee, Georgia, Vanderbilt, Appalachian State and North Carolina. This year’s Tennessee game, scheduled for Sept. 8, will bring in $500,000.

With collegiate conferences constantly being realigned — Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Davidson and College of Charleston have all left the SoCon in recent years — it would be natural for fans to wonder where ETSU might be in 10 years.

All Carter would say was that he’s happy where ETSU is now.

“We are proud to be back in the Southern Conference,” he said. “We have great rivalries within this league, which I think we desperately missed. Our fans love to play Chattanooga, Furman, Western Carolina, The Citadel … All of them.

“Our goal is to be the Southern Conference champion in every sport,” he said.

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