By Trey Williams
Second-year East Tennessee State basketball coach Steve Forbes has elevated his program so quickly that CBS analyst Seth Davis appeared convinced beating Florida in the first round of the NCAA Tournament would be just another slam dunk for Forbes’ high-leaping Buccaneers.
Davis’ prediction undoubtedly helped grab the attention of fourth-seeded Florida, which ended ETSU’s season with an 80-65 victory on Thursday in Orlando. But the Bucs’ second go-round with Forbes was beaming with shining moments.
Among ETSU’s 27 victories were a triumph at Mississippi State and a sweep of preseason Southern Conference favorite Chattanooga. Senior guard T.J. Cromer poured in 41 points in the SoCon semifinal win against Samford – the most in the league tourney since Davidson’s Stephen Curry scored 43 in 2009 – and made nine 3-pointers. Cromer added 23 points in the championship win against UNC Greensboro.
Forbes has seen excellent players paint masterpieces. Cleanthony Early scored 21 of his 31 points in the second half of top-seeded Wichita State’s 78-76 Sweet 16 loss to Kentucky in 2014. Tennessee’s Chris Lofton scored 35 points, including a shot from what must’ve been more than 30 feet over Kevin Durant, in the Volunteers’ win against Texas when Forbes worked for Bruce Pearl. And Forbes watched JUCO player of the year Chris Jones lead Northwest Florida to back-to-back national runner-ups and a 62-6 record – a run that included a 49-point performance in a win Jones capped with a 75-foot buzzer-beater.
“I’ve had some guys have big games … but nobody had made nine threes,” Forbes said. “Honestly, if I’d known the record was one more I’d probably let him try to get it. … I think the testament to him was the next night when we won it – he’d made nine threes the night before and he only took one three in the championship game. He let the game come to him and he took what the defense gave him and he scored 23 against Greensboro – and he didn’t even make a three.
“I think that goes to show you the versatility of his game and what he’s developed during his time at ETSU. … T.J. comes to get you every day, every game. He brings that lunch pail.”
Cromer was the bell cow for a squad that played with energy and purpose, but also with flare and freedom. Forbes is a players’ coach, and his players don’t play tentatively due to frequently looking over their shoulders toward the bench.
Add a heaping helping of athleticism and a plush, overhauled Freedom Hall to showcase it, and you have the recipe for sellout crowds.
“The kids played hard, they played consistent and they were a fun group to coach,” Forbes said. “I think they were a fun group for our fans to watch. … It was exciting for everybody involved. I thought it rekindled the fire at East Tennessee State, brought back a lot of pride to our community and to our program.”
Indeed, Forbes spews names when asked about former players that reached out during ETSU’s first NCAA Tournament season since 2010: Calvin Talford, Greg Dennis, Marty Story, Mister Jennings, Tim Smith, Jerry Pelphrey, D.J. McDuffie, Loren Riddick, Mike Smith, Jalen Riley, Rashawn Rembert, Dillion Sneed and Tim Smith, to name a few.
The Bucs had failed to win 20 games each of Murry Bartow’s final four seasons prior to Forbes’ arrival in 2015. Forbes has since gone 2-for-2 on 20-win seasons thanks, primarily, to the addition of junior college and Division I transfers.
This season was the 25th anniversary of a four-peat which ETSU capped by beating third-seeded Arizona in the 1992 NCAA Tournament. This marked the Bucs’ 10th NCAA Tournament appearance, a run that started with a Sweet 16 berth in 1968.
“That’s what I kept challenging my team all year long to do – was to hang their own banner so they could be a part of that legacy,” Forbes said. “And they have done that. So now when people talk about the ‘90s and the 2000s – Tim Smith – they’re gonna talk about this team, too. In 10 years I think people will look back on it and go, ‘Wow, that team was really good.’”
Forbes suspected a SoCon title was within reach when ETSU beat Milwaukee, UC Irvine and host South Dakota State to win a tournament in November.
“That was a signature deal for us,” Forbes said. “All three of those teams made the conference final and one of them made the (NCAA) Tournament – South Dakota State. And then the way we bounced back from the loss at Dayton. I wasn’t very happy with how we played at Dayton, and then we turned around and beat Mississippi State on the road. It showed the resiliency and the ability of our team to improve.”
A win against another SEC team turned out not to be in the cards, although the Bucs were a popular pick at home against Tennessee in December and against Florida in March. CBS’ Davis wasn’t the only person confident in ETSU’s chances against Florida.
“I thought it was a good matchup for us,” Forbes said. “But what you can’t tell on tape – what you can’t see till you get live – is how athletic they really are. And I knew they were athletic; don’t get me wrong. But they were a lot more athletic than maybe what I thought. They affected us with their athleticism, which I didn’t really think they could do. But they did. And that led to turnovers and easy baskets.
“We didn’t play great in the first half and we’re only down two. And I’m thinking we’re in pretty good shape. And we come out the second half and make a three and we’re up one and I’m like, ‘Okay, here we go.’ But they made six or seven threes in the second half after they didn’t make any in the first half. … Obviously, they’ve hit their stride. They’re playing well. They manhandled Virginia. … The team that beat you out is still playing. I mean there’s something to be said for that. But they finished second in the SEC. It’s not like they were chopped liver coming in. … They can guard.”
Pundits figure Forbes will be a hot commodity with the silly season of the coaching carousel getting cranked up. Job offers with a significant pay raise seem certain to materialize this year and/or next.
“I know a lot of people say that,” Forbes said. “I’m very fortunate and very lucky to have the job that I have. I understand more than most people how hard it is to get one of these things, especially to get one that’s a good one like I have – with the commitment level we have from our fans and our administration. Those jobs are hard to get.
“If something comes at me that’s life-changing, then I’ll listen. But I’m not looking for a job. I’m not out there applying or even worried about it. I’m out here trying to get some more really good players. … And there’s nothing wrong with having your name out there, either. It heightens the level of visibility of our program. … We’re building something that people are excited about. We had three sellouts, we led the league in home attendance and we had over 4,000 down there for the SoCon championship (in Asheville). Those are exciting things moving forward.”