By Trey Williams
Lute Olson’s Arizona Wildcats had five future NBA players on the 1991-92 team, but East Tennessee State’s coaches and players were excited when they learned they’d be going against the likes of Damon Stoudamire, Chris Mills, Sean Rooks, Khalid Reaves and Ed Stokes in the first round of the ’92 NCAA Tournament.
ETSU had suffered a hard-fought loss at Arizona the season before and gained as much confidence as frustration in the process.
“Our biggest motivation in that Arizona game was the loss we had in the Preseason NIT with ‘em,” said Greg Dennis, a fifth-year senior center that year who recalled everyone gathering at coach Alan LeForce’s home to watch the NCAA Tournament Selection Show. “We always obviously got together and watched the selection show and we were begging to have Arizona. And for Arizona to just pop up as our opponent is another testament to how things lined up for us. We had ‘em and should’ve beaten ‘em in the Preseason NIT. And to get ‘em again, we definitely felt like we could win the game and weren’t gonna let the opportunity slip by again.”
It was ETSU’s fourth straight appearance in March Madness. They took top-seeded Oklahoma to the wire in 1989 and probably would’ve beaten Iowa had it not been without Dennis and high-leaping Calvin Talford in ’91, the senior year of Keith “Mister” Jennnings.
Now, Dennis, Talford and Rodney English were seniors, and this was the Buccaneers’ last best chance at a shining moment.
“We were much, much better than a No. 14 seed; I’ll tell you that right now,” LeForce said. “The only guy that we lost off that (28-5 team 1990-91) team was Mister, the best I remember. And that was a big loss; don’t get me wrong. But we had a lot of returners. And, of course, we had Jason Niblett taking over the number one spot – Mister’s spot. And we had Greg Dennis back. He’d been out the year before.
“Our guys had a lot of confidence we could beat Arizona. That wasn’t false confidence. They really believed and I did, too. I knew it would take a battle but I thought we were equipped the way we played that we could beat ‘em. And we really shot the three that game.”
Indeed, the Bucs went 13-for-25 from 3-point range, and this was the year after Mister Jennings, Alvin West and Major Geer had departed. West and Geer were perimeter threats and Jennings shot a jaw-dropping 59.2 percent from behind the arc while making 84 treys as a senior in ’91.
But English went 3-for-5 and Talford was 3-for-6 from deep. Jason Niblett was 2-for-4 for the Bucs, who also got a 3-pointer apiece from Marty Story, Trazel Silvers, Dennis, Jerry Pelphrey and Eric Palmer.
English finished with 21 points, five assists and two steals. Talford had 15 points, seven rebounds and three assists. And Niblett, in his first year succeeding Jennings at point guard, tallied 13 points, while 6-foot-5 sophomore Trazel Silvers scored 12.
Silvers, a Southwest Virginia product like Talford, had 12 points, eight rebounds and two assists in 21 minutes and drove by Rooks to make it 71-62 with 5:34 to go.
Silvers could still recall faces in the stands of the Omni in Atlanta more than a quarter of a century later.
“The reception we got from the crowd when we took the floor, I mean, you wouldn’t have known that we wasn’t playing at home,” Silvers said. “Gosh, I can remember vividly to this day where people were sitting in the gym that night. I remember where my family was sitting; I remember where Calvin’s family was sitting. I remember where my teachers from high school were during that game.”
Niblett and Leforce have joked that they’ve heard Les Robinson coached that ’92 ETSU team and Jennings was the point guard.
The 5-foot-11 Niblett (Martinsville, Virginia) was in his first year out of Hagerstown Junior College in Maryland, and LeForce was in his second season after taking over for Robinson, who’d gotten the North Carolina State job after winning the first half of what turned out to be a SoCon tournament four-peat.
“I’m sure the first thing that probably comes to mind is Les Robinson was the coach and Mister was the point guard on that team,” Niblett said, “because they had one heck of a run.”
Niblett knew LeForce was worthy of respect. In fact, he’d taken a visit to North Carolina State, where Robinson told him he didn’t feel comfortable in recruiting him once he found out ETSU had spent so much time on him.
“I had met (North Carolina State guard) Rodney Monroe because when I was in JUCO his brother was my assistant coach,” Niblett said. “I had taken a visit to North Carolina State. When Les Robinson found out Coach LeForce had been recruiting me – we were sitting in his office and (NC State) was playing against Georgia Tech. Kenny Anderson was a sophomore. Rodney Monroe had, like, 48. He broke David Thompson’s scoring record. …
“I told him (Robinson) who was recruiting me and when I told him and he said, ‘Wow, did you realize I just left East Tennessee State?’ I said, ‘No sir.’ He asked me how long they’d been recruiting me and I said, ‘All year.’ And there was some loyalty in their friendship that you don’t see in today’s game.”
ETSU, of course, was replacing West and Geer along with Jennings in ’92. But the Bucs remained talented.
“That ball club was a very, very, very good basketball club my second year,” LeForce said. “My first and second year we could go into any arena in America and play. At any arena we had a chance to win, not just show up.”
In that era, ETSU went 2-0 against Tennessee. Allan Houston was on one of those Volunteers teams.
ETSU won at BYU (Shawn Bradley), at Memphis (Elliott Perry) and prevailed in Cincinnati against Xavier (Brian Grant) and Bob Huggins’ Bearcats, who’d swept Top 15 Southern Miss (Clarence Weatherspoon) and split with Louisville.
The quality losses included a 91-86 setback at Maryland when Gary Williams’ Terrapins had Walt Williams, Jerrod Mustaf and Tony Massenburg, and the loss at Arizona.
Wildcats players supposedly assumed there was significant drop-off from the ETSU team that it’d beaten the previous year.
“Lute Olson and I had become friends after we played ‘em out there,” LeForce said. “I was with the Nike group and so was he, and they’d take us places. So we’d always talk. Lute told me that spring, ‘We tried to convince our players that y’all could beat us.’ And he said, ‘We could never, ever convince them that you all were that good.’
“Those kids had trust in each other. They loved each other, cared for each other. It didn’t make any difference who scored the points or whatever. All they wanted to do was win. And that’s what they did.”