By Collin Brooks
ETSU senior point guard TJ Cromer strolled into the ETSU watch party a little late, but he wasn’t going to let a little sickness stop him from finding out where his team is going to start their shining moment.
The only hope the Albany, Georgia native has is that the Florida Gators will be the ones feeling crummy after they match-up with the Bucs (27-7) on Thursday, March 16 at 3:10 p.m at the Amway Center in Orlando, Fla. The game will be televised on TruTv.
“I couldn’t miss this moment, man,” said Cromer, a little hunched over but surrounded by fans wanting his autograph after the match-up was announced. “It felt great just to know that a childhood dream is finally coming true.”
The Bucs, who currently have an RPI of 54 which is ahead of eight Southeastern Conference teams, have played the Gators four times in their history. This is the first time the two teams will meet on the hardwood since 1981. The 17th-ranked Florida Gators (24-8,14-4), who finished second in the SEC behind Kentucky, enter the contest after suffering a 72-62 overtime loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC semifinals.
Forbes said that the Gators, who happen to be returning to the tournament after a two-year hiatus, have a good team and that he is familiar with their Coach Mike White.
“I think our teams are a lot alike, really athletic, play hard and play 94 feet,” said Forbes who took a recruiting trip to Orlando last week. “Without watching them much, I know they’ve got really good guards…it’s a good match-up and I know it’s going to be a hard game but I know we will be ready to play.”
Senior A.J. Merriweather said that he wasn’t focused on the match-up as much as he was enjoying the atmosphere of the Bucs watch party. Close to 1,000 ETSU fans filled a ballroom at the Millennium Center.
“It’s just remarkable to see your name on national TV on Selection Sunday, I know that a lot of people around the world are watching it and it shows that our hard work has paid off,” Merriweather said.
Merriweather will probably draw the Gators toughest defensive match-up in 6-foot-2 KeVaugh Allen who is averaging 13.9 points per contest. Other standouts for the Gators include 6-foot-6 senior guard Canyon Barry (12.1 ppg), 6-foot-8 Devin Robinson (10.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg) and 6-foot-1 guard Kasey Hill (9.8 ppg). None of that seemed to worry the Bucs.
“We know that they are a fast paced team and they have great guards, but I feel like we match-up well with them,” Cromer said.
The crowd that turned out for the Bucs just re-validated the good things that Forbes said he learned about the community when he took the job.
“Overwhelmingly, people talked about this when I took the job, how excited people were about basketball here,” he said. “We just had to light the fire and we lit it and now it’s a bonfire. People are excited and it makes me feel proud of what we have accomplished so far. Just to see the joy on people’s faces, it means a lot to me.”
But it also meant a lot to Merriweather, who played his four years split between two head coaches.
“It means the world,” he said. “I will forever remember this for the rest of my life.”