GREAT TEAMS IN SOUTHERN CONFERENCE BASKETBALL HISTORY: 2003-04 EAST TENNESSEE STATE BUCS:
East Tennessee State has a tradition of great basketball teams, and the Bucs have shown that pedigree in their return to the league the past two seasons, which includes a trip to the SoCon title game just three months ago in Asheville.
In their previous Southern Conference stint, the Bucs had some outstanding teams, with four-straight Southern Conference title runs, stretching from 1989-92.
The 2003 Bucs returned to the top of the Southern Conference, getting back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a decade, and with that success, it brought an end to the Ed DeChellis era in Johnson City, as he took over the head coaching responsibilities at Penn State after having led the Bucs program back from the doldrums when he took over in the late 1990s.
DeChellis had certainly left the program in much better shape than he found it when he assumed the head coaching job in Johnson City, and the beneficiary of a team that returned all five starters from a team that had won 20 games a year earlier en route to claiming the Southern Conference crown with a 97-90 win over Chattanooga in the 2003 title game in the North Charleston Coliseum was Murry Bartow--son of the former legendary UCLA and UAB head coach Gene Bartow.
With all five starters back, the preseason SoCon predictions seemed somewhat a formality, and the Bucs were a unanimous favorite to take the Southern Conference title. The Bucs returned all of their scoring power, with the likes of guard Tim Smith and forwards Zakee Wadood and Jerald Fields gave the Bucs a formidable inside-outside punch.
The Bucs would flourish under Bartow in his first season at the helm of the program, and by the time the season finished, the Bucs would tied for the second-most wins in school history, trailing only the 1990-91 ETSU club, which won 28 games.
The 2003-04 Bucs would reel off some impressive non-conference wins, including a 65-51 win over Conference USA member Houston to open the campaign. The Bucs also had played valiantly, but ran out of gas in a 100-86 overtime loss at Clemson. Only Texas Tech (L, 64-53), IUPUI (L, 85-81) and American (L, 71-66) managed wins over the Bucs in non-conference play, as the Bucs completed their pre-SoCon slate with an impressive 12-4 record.
The Bucs had managed one early season league win, as Bartow's Bucs edged out Georgia Southern in the mini-dome to begin league play. That game saw the Bucs edge out the Eagles, 91-85, in a game that pitted a pair of the SoCon's top teams against each other in an early-season league battle.
Wadood posted one of the games of his career, finishing with 30 points and 12 boards to lead the Bucs to a conference-opening win over the Eagles. It would be the beginning of 15-straight Southern Conference wins for the Bucs, as ETSU nearly strolled through the conference slate nearly unscathed, finishing 15-1 in league play.
Following the win over Georgia Southern on Dec. 3, 2003, the Bucs wouldn't commence league play again until the beginning of the new year, and the first two games of the new year certainly wouldn't be easy ones, with trips to Furman and UNC Greensboro.
The trip to Furman certainly proved to be the most difficult of the early league games, and the Paladins were one of the darkhorses in the SoCon entering the season. But game number 13 of the season proved to be of the lucky sort for the Bucs, getting a 69-68 win over the Paladins in come-from-behind fashion at Timmons Arena.
It was the best game of the season-to-date for ETSU guard and SoCon Player of the Year candidate Tim Smith, who posted 22 points, three steals and two assists, including going 10-of-15 from the field in the win. Acrobatic layups by Smith saw the Bucs score the final four points of the game and escaped Greenville with a one-point win.
It would be the start of what would turn into 15-straight league wins. The Bucs would post a hard-fought 72-68 win at UNC Greensboro five days after the narrow win at Furman. The small but boisterous confines of Fleming Gym couldn't contain Zakee Wadood and the Bucs, who posted a game-high 21 points to go with 11 boards, as the Bucs posted another nail-biting win.
ETSU would encounter SoCon road battles througout the first month of 2004, including tough trips to Davidson and Elon. Both road wins saw the magic number for the Bucs being 75, as ETSU pulled out a 75-72 win at Elon before edging past Davidson, 75-70, at Belk Arena just two nights later, improving to 5-0 in SoCon play. Four of the Bucs' first five conference games were on the road, and no win came by more than five points.
A fifth road game out of six to start the Southern Conference slate saw the Bucs travel over the mountain to take on arch-rival Appalachian State in Boone before a loud early Saturday afternoon crowd at the Holmes Convocation Center.
In a battle of two of the SoCon's best point guards, as Tim Smith locked horns with Mountaineer point guard D.J. Thompson, it would be the Bucs' Smith that finished with the upper hand, as ETSU claimed a 93-80 win at the Convocation Center on that particular afternoon. Smith scored 18 points to lead six Bucs in double figures in the win.
The game was in doubt with just over seven minutes remaining and the Mountaineers winning by eight (74-66), however, the Bucs flexed their championship muscle 27-14 the rest of the way en route to the win.
The Bucs wouldn't encounter a stern test in league play again until the second week of February, beginning with games against Appalachian State (Feb. 7) and Chattanooga (Feb. 9). The Bucs survived to get a 66-63 win over the Apps on a snowy afternoon in Johnson City, improving to 11-0 overall in league play before better than 7,000 fans on-hand at the mini-dome.
Against the Mocs, who were the Bucs most heated rival, the Bucs traveled to the Roundhouse and came away with a narrow 82-80 win, clinching the SoCon North Division title in the process. The Bucs had to rally from a 19-point deficit in front of better than 8,000 Mocs fans on-hand at McKenzie Arena. The Bucs were led by Jerald Fields, who posted 18 points and had eight rebounds, leading four Bucs in double figures en route to leading ETSU to its second-straight 20-win season.
Stay tuned for part 2, as Mid-Major Madness continues to break down the ETSU Bucs magical run through the SoCon in 2003-04.