By Trey Williams
Wichita State reached the Sweet 16, beat Kansas and won 35 straight games during his two-year stint, and the Shockers entered the NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed for the first time.
Forbes also helped fuel Tennessee’s wildly successful era under Bruce Pearl, one that included the school’s first-ever No. 1 ranking and Elite Eight berth. And he helped Texas A&M to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 19 years and finished national runner-up back-to-back years in junior college at Northwest Florida.
“I’ve coached some great teams in the past and I’ve seen what can happen,” Forbes said. “We have all the parts for that. So yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot since June, ‘Where can this team end up in March.’”
How it ends up December 22 is intriguing, too. That’s when the Buccaneers will host Tennessee. Will the fact that the Volunteers lost at home to ETSU’s Southern Conference rival, Chattanooga, put added pressure on the Bucs and Forbes?
“No, I want to beat Tennessee because that’s the game on December 22nd that we play,” Forbes said. “And I want to do it for our fans and Northeast Tennessee. I know there’s a pride factor when you win a game like that.”
Fordham coach Jeff Neubauer had high praise for Forbes. “I do have great respect for him,” Neubauer said. “The thing is this: everyone thinks he’s an amazing recruiter, which he is. But he’s a terrific basketball coach. He is absolutely underrated as a basketball coach, and that is why he’s got this thing going like he does.”
Certainly, shooting a high percentage looks like it’ll be a slam dunk – and not just because the Buccaneers have a number of long-armed leapers.
ETSU’s scintillating start included shooting a combined 66.1 percent from the field in a pair of blowout victories against Detroit Mercy (107-78) and Fordham (96-59).
Yes, the Buccaneers were seemingly dunking quicker than you could say Calvin Talford during several stretches. But ETSU also made a blistering 12 of 23 attempts from 3-point range against Fordham and a respectable 38.1 percent of its treys against a Detroit Mercy team picked to finish a respectable fourth in the Horizon League.
Had ETSU not missed its last field goal attempt against Detroit Mercy it would’ve set a school record for single-game field goal shooting. Newcomer David Burrell, a 6-foot-6 junior that Forbes describes as “Deuce Bellow with a jump-shot,” is 10-for-10 from the floor on the season, including 4-of-4 shooting from 3-point range. And Isaac Banks is 11-for-11 from the field.
“Offense is not gonna be a problem for us,” Forbes said. “But we’ve got to defend to be special.”
Depth, athleticism and a balanced roster should allow ETSU to become an excellent defensive unit. Long-armed 6-foot-9, 230-pound Indiana transfer Hanner Mosquera-Perea has blocked a team-leading eight shots in two games. His length and athleticism are also effective in a 1-3-1 zone that Forbes plans to employ more frequently, and he looks like he’ll flourish at the offensive end eventually, too.
Another Indiana transfer, 7-foot senior Peter Jurkin, led the Bucs in blocked shots last season. He’s struggling to get minutes through the first two games but Forbes said there’ll be games when Jurkin plays major minutes.
“We’ve had some really good battles in practice, as you can probably imagine,” Forbes said. “I mean there’s been some days Peter Jurkin has destroyed our bigs.”
The deep frontcourt also features 6-foot-8 Wichita State transfer Tevin Glass and Banks, a 6-foot-7, 235-pound senior. They help comprise an exceptional mix of size and depth for a Southern Conference frontcourt.
And there’s even more depth at guard, where 6-foot-3 senior T.J. Cromer is the bell cow. Cromer scored 16 points against Fordham and 25 more against Detroit Mercy.
The backcourt and wings include talented 6-foot-4 junior Desonta Bradford, who made one high-flying dunk against Detroit Mercy that surely had nearly everyone in Freedom Hall smiling. He seemed to satisfy everyone in Freedom Hall but his coach, at least.
“I’ve got high expectations for him,” Forbes said. “Sometimes Dasonta doesn’t have them for himself. He’s got to come and be consistent to be an all-league level player.”
The stable of guards and small forwards includes A.J. Merriweather (6-2, Sr.), Devontavius Payne (6-2, Jr.), Burrell (6-6, Jr.), Julian Walters (5-10, Jr.), Jermaine Long (6-3, Jr.) and Jason Williams, a freshman from Detroit that Forbes said was too talented to red-shirt despite his initial intention. A number of Bucs guards look comfortable using ball screens to score, making mid-range pull-ups, step-back 3-pointers or difficult leaning banks.
Forbes’ list is an embarrassment of riches in terms of talent. The Bucs score in spurts while penetrating and kicking out or trapping their way to transition points and dunking alley-oop passes.
“I do think we have 12 guys that we can throw out there at any time and be pretty darn successful,” Forbes said. “We can come at you a lot of different ways with this team. We can come at you big and we can play small if we have to.”
Either way, it’s a crowd-pleasing display of athletic talent and energy. Among the former Bucs you might catch smiling at the memory of ETSU’s explosive talent are Calvin Talford (1992 NCAA Slam Dunk champion), Greg Dennis (played overseas and was in the Atlanta Hawks camp) and ETSU all-time leading scorer Tim Smith.
Forbes has embraced ETSU’s rich history, which will have a new chapter now that Freedom Hall looks snazzy following a multi-million overhaul.
“I’m a history guy,” Forbes said. “I love Jim Hallihan. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Coach (Alan) LeForce and Les (Robinson) and Sonny (Smith). I’ve known Murry (Bartow) a long time.
“Mister (Jennings) has his group with Calvin and them. And then there’s Tim’s group and there’s Skeeter (Swift) and (Mike) Kretzer. And now maybe there’ll be a group with Merriweather and Cromer, and they’ll come back with their banner and have fun at homecoming. … We have a tremendous tradition here. I just want us to build on it.”