Perimeter players abound; question marks surround interior
By Kelly Hodge
New faces and new places add intrigue to the mix as the East Tennessee State basketball team prepares to rejoin the Southern Conference this season.
The Bucs opened fall camp last Saturday with a roster featuring five newcomers, most of them big men. There are also two new assistant coaches.
ETSU returns to the SoCon after nine seasons in the Atlantic Sun. Coming off a 19-win campaign, the Bucs are expected to challenge for a championship right out of the chute, but coach Murry Bartow says there are pressing questions.
“It’s very clear that we have some unknowns with this team,” said Bartow, who enters his 12thseason in Johnson City. “Post guys are really an unknown. We’ll have to see how it works as we start piecing it all together.”
The Bucs return a core of outstanding players, led by guard Rashawn Rembert.
The senior from Tampa, Fla., led the Atlantic Sun in scoring (16.8) last season and made a school-record 108 3-pointers. Rembert was a 42 percent shooter from behind the arc and 84 percent from the foul line.
“Rashawn has improved as much from his freshman year to his senior year as anybody I’ve ever coached,” said Bartow. “He was a catch-and-shoot guy when he first got here. His body has changed and his level of athleticism has totally changed. He has the ability to score in multi-dimensional ways now.”
The 6-3, 190-pounder isn’t a particularly vocal leader, but Bartow says he sets the right example.
“He’s the hardest worker on the team, in the gym more than anyone else,” he said. “He has an incredibly high level of confidence. We need him to keep going and take it to another level. He’s gotta try to get us 20 points a night.”
The Bucs have other proven weapons in the backcourt, with senior Jalen Riley, sophomore A.J. Merriweather and redshirt junior Lester Wilson.
Riley, a former junior-college transfer, averaged 13.4 points last season and made a league-high 202 trips to the foul line – no small feat for a 6-foot, 150-pound guard. He made 83 percent of his free throws.
Merriweather came in as a high-energy 6-2 freshman from Jackson, started 32 games and led the team in rebounding (6.3), while averaging 9.5 points. Wilson made 63 3-pointers and scored 10.1 points per game.
Junior Petey McClain returns as a two-year starter at point guard, and 6-4, 200-pound sophomore Devin Harris showed some flashes of his potential at that spot late last season.
“We’ve got a lot of perimeter guys back, and there is some comfort there,” said Bartow. “Those guys are a year older, and we’re hoping a year better. There’s a lot of experience there.”
The newcomer in the mix is freshman Desonta Bradford of Humboldt, the Class A Mr. Basketball in the state last season. He’s 6-4 and could have an immediate impact.
Who emerges quickly in the frontcourt is the most pressing question.
Isaac Banks and Ron Giplaye played a total of 153 minutes between them last season. All the other post players on the roster are new.
If nothing else, Bartow suddenly has plenty of size to throw at opponents.
Peter Jurkin, a transfer from Indiana who has to sit out this season, is seven feet tall. Freshman Karl Overstreet is 6-10, while senior transfer Alex Bates is 6-9 and 235 pounds. Juco Tommy Williams is a long 6-5 and 220 pounds.
Everyone is interested to see how Jurkin develops after two injury-plagued seasons at Indiana. In the near term, however, Overstreet is perhaps the most intriguing of the bunch.
“He hasn’t played a lot of basketball and is really raw,” Bartow said of the Hargrave Military Academy recruit. “But there are four things about him that intrigue me: One, the fact that he’s 6-10. Two, he weighs 240. Three, he can really run. And four, he has a great motor.
“If you look across college basketball and study who has all four of those things, the pool would be really small. Karl has a lot to learn, but he’s ahead of where I thought he’d be right now. We’ll see what that translates into.”
The Bucs will be playing all their home games – 15 of them – at Freedom Hall this season. They went 3-0 there last season and the players liked the atmosphere.
Along with the new conference affiliation, the change of venue puts a different spin on this season. The action tips off Nov. 3 against Milligan College.
“I think it’s exciting,” said Bartow. “We really haven’t talked about the new conference much as a team, but I hear the players talking about it. And I think Freedom Hall can really be a great place for us to play.”
The coach is also pleased with his revamped staff.
Jason Slay came in from Tennessee State, and also worked at Georgia Southern and Hargrave Military Academy. A cousin of former Tennessee standout Ron Slay, he is considered a young coach on the rise.
Bill McCammon is a veteran international coach who once played with Bartow at UAB. He was a head coach for teams in Puerto Rico, Mexico, Spain and Venezuela, among other places.
Slay and McCammon join Bob Bolen as assistants; Bolen is entering his second season with the program.
“I like this staff a lot,” said Bartow. “Bob and Bill are both longtime head coaches about my age. They’ve made a lot of decisions and been successful.
“Jason spearheads a lot of what we do with player development. He’ll be one of those guys who’s hard to keep, a dynamic young guy like Will Bailey or Thomas Carr. Those coaches are in demand.”