Last season, East Tennessee State was supposed to be one of the teams back in the fold challenging for a league title in their first season back in the Southern Conference in a decade. Instead, the Bucs were battling in the middle of the pack, and after getting ousted in the opening round of the Southern Conference Tournament by Western Carolina, it was time for a change in leadership.
Out was Murray Bartow after 12 years in charge, and it was Bartow that had led the Bucs to their last Southern Conference title back during the 2003-04 season, following Ed DeChellis' departure to become the head coach at Penn State.
The most significant fallout from the ultimate firing of Bartow was felt by the loss of guard Tyler Hooker, who had led Hillcrest High School to a state title apperarance before losing to Sumter. The two-star recruit is likely the best point guard the school has produced since Hal Henderson, who helped Furman to the 1991-92 Southern Conference regular-season title.
The Bucs finished the regular-season fifth in the Southern Conference, with a 16-13 overall record and a 8-10 record in Southern Conference play. The Bulldogs struggled down the stretch in the 2014-15 season, losing their final two games in the league by a combined two points to The Citadel (L, 74-73) and Mercer (L, 61-60). The Bucs were in all their conference games, with their worst loss coming to eventual champion Wofford, losing 74-64, in Spartanburg in early February.
A New Era
In late March, ETSU announced Bartow's replacement and 16th head coach in the 95-year history of the tradition-rich program as Bartow's replacement in the tri-cities, which would be Scott Forbes.
The fallout continued in early June, when it was announced three players would be leaving the ETSU basketball program, with the transfer of guards Devin Harris and Tommy Williams, as well as center Carl Overstreet. The most significant of those losses is Harris, who
Given the Bucs' success over the years as a Southern Conference member, as well as in their short membership in the Atlantic Sun, the ETSU men's hoops job is one of the most prestigious in the Southern Conference, while also being one of the most pressure-packed jobs in the league.
The new head coach will have a good base to work from, with three starters back from a year ago. The problem will be in the backcourt, where the Bucs graduated two of their top players from the backcourt, who both ranked in the Top five in the Southern Conference in scoring last season.
Gone from the fold for the Bucs are both guards Jalen Riley and Rashawn Rembert, who were responsible for nearly 35 PPG between the two of them last season, giving the Bucs one of the most prolific scoring backcourts in the Southern Conference.
With the loss of Riley and Rembert, the Bucs also lost two of the league's most prolific three-point shooters, as both Riley and Rembert combined to connect on 170 triples last season, as the Bucs ranked second in the SoCon to only VMI in three-pointers made, with 280 triples on the campaign. Rembert led the SoCon with 90 made triples, while Riley finished with 80 treys to finish fourth in the SoCon.
The good news is the return of rising junior A.J. Merriweather (10.3 PPG, 6.1 RPG) returns to the fold for the 2014-15 season. Merriweather will be looked to as a key leader on Forbes squad this fall, and will likely enter the season as a preseason all-conference selection.
The 6-2 wing guard started 28 out of 30 games last season for the Bucs, and was one of four players that ended the season averaging in double figures for the Bucs. Merriweather enjoyed the best outing of his 2014-15 season in a clash with The Citadel late in the campaign, posting 19 points in a 74-73 loss to The Citadel. Merriweather also produced a double-double in a win over VMI, posting 17 points and 10 boards.
Merriweather ended the season by recording 18 double-figure scoring performances, ending the season on a tear, scoring in double digits in the last eight games of the season, including 18 in the season-ending loss to Western Carolina in the Southern Conference Tournament.
His 6.1 RPG ended up leading the team, and though not the prolific outside shooter of backcourt teammates Rembert and Riley, he did managed to finish fourth on the team in three-pointers made, with 20 triples, going 20-for-49 from three-point land.
Joining Merriweather as a veteran returnee in the backcourt this season will be speedy Petey McClain (1.6 PPG, 2.1 RPG, ), who will return as one of the league's top point guards heading into the season. McClain ended up starting 23 of 30 games for the Bucs last season.
McClain finished the season second in the Southern Conference in assists-per-game (4.2 APG). Though not a scorer, McClain is the type of player that will provide a veteran floor leader in the coming season for the Bucs.
Also returning to the backcourt for the Bucs this fall be Desonta Bradford (4.4 PPG, 1.1 RPG), who performed well in his first season as a Buc. Look for his game to only improve in his second season for the Bucs. Bradford saw more and more playing time as the season progressed, and had one of his best games during the stretch run of the season against Furman, posting 12 points and three boards in a 66-59 win for ETSU.
Forbes had to compensate for the loss of 6-4 swingman Harris, so he would sign 6-6 guard Shemar Johnson. Johnson will have the ability play either guard or forward, but is probably most at home in the backcourt, where he will likely serve as an athletic wing for the Bucs.
The native of Columbia, Mississippi, comes to ETSU from New Hope High School, where he posted 16.5 PPG, 6.1 RPG and 3.1 SPG. Johnson reminds me of former Western Carolina swingman Brandon Boggs, as both have the same body type and athleticism. Johnson will have a chance to develop into an all-conference player in Johnson City.
The Bucs also added a trio of high-profile transfers, who will both be able to play right away. Ge'Lawn Guyn (Cincinnati), Deuce Bello (Baylor) and T.J. Cromer (Columbia State Community College).
Both Guyn and Cromer are excellent shooters and while neither will be expected to replace Riley and Rembert, both will most likely be solid all-around additions to the roster, and will help make up for some of what the Bucs lose in terms of being perimeter threats with the graduation or Riley and Rembert.
Guyn, a graduate of Cincinnati, averaged 4.5 PPG and 2.0 RPG in 19 minutes per game, in what was his junior season for the Bearcats. Cromer averaged 19.9 PPG and canned 107 triples on a blistering 46-percent shooting from beyond the arc. Cromer will be a junior and will have two seasons remaining this fall.
The Bucs also have talent returning in the front court, although, admittedly, it was a big problem for ETSU last season, especially after Ron Giplaye (7.1 RPG in 2014-15) went down in early December with a season-ending knee injury.
Prior to his knee injury, the Providence transfer was among the league's top rebounders, and though it was early in the season, it appeared Giplaye was well on his way to an all-conference type season for the Bucs. Now that Giplaye has graduated, players like 7-0 Peter Jurkin and 6-7 junior Isaac Banks (2.9 PPG, 4.9 RPG) will be among those expected to see more action in 2015-16. Banks was one of the better athletes on the floor last season for the Bucs, starting 14 of 28 games.
Maybe the most significant returnee in the front court for ETSU is Lester Wilson (12.8 PPG, 3.6 RPG), who is the leading returning scorer for the Bucs. The 6-7 Wilson spent most of his time looking to score from beyond the arc, connecting on 72 triples last season, and will head into 2015-16 as an all-conference player.
Forbes also added 6-8 junior Nigel Holley (Vicennes/will be eligible), 6-9 Hanner Mosquera-Perea (Indiana/will not be eligible in 2015-16) and 6-7 junior Abednego Lufile (Sheridan College/Ontario Canada/will be eligible). The Bucs are a real unknown heading into 2015-16, but could be a force to be reckoned with.