By Trey Williams
As two-time defending Southern Conference tournament champion Wofford learned Saturday in Freedom Hall, East Tennessee State’s opponents will be hard pressed to beat first-year coach Steve Forbes’ Buccaneers in the league tournament.
Second-seeded ETSU will open play in the quarterfinals Saturday at 6 p.m. in Asheville against the Mercer-Citadel winner.
The Bucs (21-10, 14-4), who won the second-most SoCon games in program history, will play after a week-long break against a team that’s had 20 hours of rest, and they’re likely to bolt from the gates in a full-court press that’s become more formidable the past month.
A fast start in the regular-season finale – much to the delight of a large, energetic crowd in Freedom Hall – helped ETSU avenge a 14-point loss at Wofford with a 71-66 victory. T.J. Cromer’s driving basket capped a game-opening 17-4 Buccaneers run that included forcing nine turnovers from Mike Young’s well-coached Terriers in the opening seven-plus minutes.
The frenzied flurry included a steal and rousing dunk from athletic 6-foot-4 senior Deuce Bello, one of two highlight-reel slams from the one-and-done transfer from Missouri.
Former Cincinnati starting point guard Ge’Lawn Guyn, another senior who joined the program after Forbes was hired last spring, enhances ETSU’s pressure defense with similarly awe-inspiring athleticism.
Junior guard A.J. Merriweather, who returned from a hand injury Saturday after missing 16 games, will aid the press, too. Forbes doesn’t have the depth to press for 40 minutes like Tennessee often seemed to do when the Volunteers were one of the nation’s premier programs while Forbes and ETSU assistant Jason Shay were assisting Bruce Pearl. Should it survive and advance in Asheville, ETSU certainly can’t press for the vast majority of three games in three days.
“We’ve gone to pressing more in the last month and it’s really helped us,” Forbes said. “I have to pick and choose because of our depth. Getting A.J. back will help that, but … our best pressing team is with Deuce at the four. Basicially, that puts four guards in the game, and … it really hampers our depth.”
But 94 feet of defense could be a difference maker that helps keep Forbes’ March mojo rolling. The 50-year-old Forbes spent the past two years enjoying wildly successful seasons at Wichita State after coaching Northwest Florida State to back-to-back national runners-up in the junior-college ranks. Before that he was part of five straight NCAA Tournament teams at Tennessee.
He detects a comparable confidence in his debut edition of Bucs.
“They’ve got a swag about themselves,” Forbes said. “They believe they can win it. That’s half the battle. I can feel the vibe with them.”
Guyn exudes confidence, and it’s understandable. He might not be as fast as former ETSU guard Tim Smith, but his acceleration evokes such images.
Wofford played North Carolina State last season, and Terriers junior wing Jaylen Allen, a former Science Hill player, compared Guyn’s speed to super-quick Wolfpack guard Cat Barber.
Guyn can streak past disciplined transition defenders, and he’s shot 40.5 percent while making a team-high 77 treys, many of which he creates for himself. Guyn is averaging a team-high 18.1 points. Guyn is also tied for the team lead in blocked shots (26) despite being 6-foot-2.
Guyn, you might say, is a man among boys. He turned 25 in November.
“He’s a grown man and he’s strong and he’s seen a lot of ball,” said Wofford Assistant Coach Dustin Kerns, a Dobyns-Bennett alumnus. “And he’s a good player.”
Guyn is one of four ETSU seniors who received a fond farewell from the ETSU faithful on Senior Day. The others were Bello, point guard Petey McClain and Lester Wilson.
“I can’t say enough about Petey and Ge’Lawn and Deuce and Lester,” Forbes said. “They’re so happy right now.
“That’s what was important to me – for them to have a great senior year. When I came here I said I wanted these seniors to have a chance to be successful, and we’ve done that.”
Wilson made two treys against Wofford, including one that gave the Bucs a 15-4 lead and amplified the decibel level.
“The atmosphere (Saturday) was really just an overall cap of what this season has been like – basically, us growing as a team and as players,” Wilson said.
Wilson has made 52 treys this season while shooting 41.3 percent. It was difficult to guess what his role would be when the experienced veteran saw the roster flooded with talented additions such as Guyn, Bello and Cromer, a junior-college All-American at Columbia State. But Wilson has averaged 16.2 minutes and made nine starts and, most importantly, grown to relish his role.
“Adapting with new players, at the beginning, I thought would be tough,” Wilson said. “But honestly, we all have the same goal in mind, and that’s winning. And we all just really put whatever agenda we had personally to the side knowing that if we look good as a team then all the other work will do itself.”
Cromer made 107 treys in junior college while shooting 46 percent, but he isn’t a finesse player. With plenty of explosion in his sturdy 6-foot-3 frame, Cromer drives hard to the basket and is willing to initiate the contact. His 112 free throw attempts are second only to Guyn’s 124.
“That’s one thing T.J.’s probably shown me that I wasn’t sure existed in his game (when he signed),” Forbes said. “I knew T.J. could really shoot the three. But T.J.’s shown the ability to really drive the ball and get fouled.”
The Bucs seem to go as Cromer goes. Guyn’s going to get his points, but the Bucs are vulnerable when Cromer’s held in check. He was held to single-digit scoring in losses to Chattanooga, Wofford and Tennessee.
ETSU got a promising performance from 7-foot Indiana transfer Peter Jurkin in the win against Wofford. He set career highs in rebounds (eight) and blocked shots (four), and scored two of his eight points while calmly making two free throws for a 69-66 lead with 15.4 seconds left. Jurkin’s interior basket with a one-dribble move had given the Bucs a 67-63 lead with 54 seconds remaining.
“I’ve yanked him a lot just based on a couple of mistakes here and there,” Forbes said, “but yesterday I let him play through them. He really affected the game defensively. He blocked a lot of shots and he changed a lot of shots.
“And then on the other side he made some shots around the basket and when he got fouled he converted. He’s made his last 12 free throws in a row. For a guy who’s 7-foot that’s pretty good.”
And Jurkin and the Bucs could be a tall task in Asheville.
“We’re having fun,” Forbes said. “We’ve got some passion back in the arena. I think people are excited. We’ll have a great crowd down in Asheville for the tournament.”
Chattanooga, the only team to sweep ETSU, is the favorite, but not necessarily a decisive one. Kerns was impressed with ETSU in the rematch Saturday.
“It was a great college basketball game – both teams playing hard and physical,” he said. “That was a man’s game and they got us in the end. They’ve got a good team, and certainly a shot in the arm getting Merriweather back.
“It was a great atmosphere and a great game and I hope we see them again. If we see them again I think it’ll be in the championship. … I wouldn’t be surprised if we play them again.”