ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The most exciting weekend in Southern Conference basketball is underway and East Tennessee State is hoping to stay around for a while.
The SoCon tournament got going Friday night at Harrah’s Cheroke4e Center. The Bucs avoided one of the dreaded play-in games, where they lost last year.
ETSU opens the tournament with a quarterfinal matchup against Western Carolina on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. The Bucs (12-19) are seeded fifth while the Catamounts (17-14) are seeded fourth.
The winner earns a berth in Sunday’s semifinal at 4 p.m.
During the regular season, Western Carolina swept ETSU for the first time since the 1984-85 season.
“You really just got to play like it’s your last game,” ETSU guard Jordan King said. “If you lose, it is literally your last game. Just play with toughness, play smart, play together, and that’s how you come up with wins.”
The Bucs would need three wins to capture the tournament they’ve won eight times, including twice under Steve Forbes. The SoCon champ earns the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
King leads the Bucs in scoring at 15.5 points a game. Haynes, ETSU’s center, averages 14.3. They were both third-team All-SoCon picks.
Tre Jackson, a guard who transferred from Iowa State, leads the Catamounts at 15.9 points per game. Tyzhaun Claude averages 15.4 and Vonterius Woolbright averages 14.4.
Jackson has a 47-point game to his credit this season and Claude leads the SoCon in rebounding at 8.6 per game. Jackson and Woolbright were both second-team All-SoCon picks.
“They have some of the best guards in the league,” King said. “Tre Jackson is one of the best shooters and we’re definitely going to have to keep an eye on him because he’s a really good player. If he gets hot, he’s going to take the game over.”
ETSU comes into the tournament with a little momentum, having closed a mostly disappointing regular season with two wins in a row, including a season-ending upset of UNC Greensboro.
“I think they’re hungry to play,” ETSU coach Desmond Oliver said. “I feel like we are peaking at the right time. We’re getting better. Our chemistry with the team is improving. Players are improving.
“I think Jaden Seymour’s playing the best basketball of his career. Jalen Haynes is getting better. Jordan King is getting better. So I think that’s the thing we talked about as a unit. Each individual is improving so our team’s getting better.”
Seymour has really turned his game up a notch down the stretch. The 6-foot-8 forward has set his career high for points in each of his last three games. Over that span he is averaging 16 points and nine rebounds while shooting 60% from the field.
ETSU has gotten some production from injured forward Josh Taylor, who is back after missing time with a broken wrist. The Bucs are also expected to have the services of forward Brock Jancek and guard Allen Strothers, both of whom have been out with concussions. Jancek is making 74% of his shots from the field.
Saturday’s contest will be the Bucs’ third this season on the Harrah’s Cherokee Center floor. They beat Elon and lost to Louisiana in the early season Asheville Championship.