Back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010, No. 13 East Tennessee State (27-7) will battle No. 4 Florida (24-8) in Orlando. When the Bucs were last in the NCAA Tournament, they also faced a team out of the SEC, dropping a 100-71 contest to Kentucky.
The Bucs and Gators will be meeting for the fifth time in series history, with Florida having won each of the previous four contests. The Bucs and Gators have not met since the 1980-81 season, with the Gators taking a 72-54 win. The Bucs went 1-1 against SEC members this season, knocking off Mississippi State (W, 67-65) on Dec. 14, while dropping a home decision to Tennessee (L, 72-68) on Dec. 22.
ETSU finished the Southern Conference season in a three-way tie with Furman and UNC Greensboro for the regular-season league crown, as all three posted 14-4 league marks. Playing as the No. 3 seed due to tiebreakers in the league tournament, the Bucs knocked off Mercer (W, 67-58), Samford (W, 81-72) and UNC Greensboro (W, 79-74) to win the program’s seventh SoCon Tournament crown and first since their previous stint as a member in 2004.
The Bucs have made nine NCAA Tournament appearances, with a 2-10 all-time mark. ETSU has won a pair of games in the NCAA Tournament, against Florida State (W, 79-69) in 1968 and Arizona (W, 87-80) in 1992.
East Tennessee State is coached by Steve Forbes, who has already posted 51 wins in two seasons leading the program. Also, Forbes has taken the Bucs to a pair of SoCon Tournament title games, losing to Chattanooga last season while defeating top-seeded UNCG in 2016-17. A win over Florida would tie Alan LeForce’s two-year record of 52 victories.
Though ETSU is Forbes’ first head coaching job, he has been mentored by some of the game’s best, including Bruce Pearl and Gregg Marshall. Forbes has had success wherever he has been, whether it has been a head coach at the JUCO level, assistant at power five or mid-major program and now the head coach at a tradition-rich mid-major.
Players/Matchups To Watch:
Obviously, the guard matchups in this game are mouth-watering. If you haven’t seen TJ Cromer (19.1 PPG, 2.9 RPG) play for ETSU, you’re in for a tremendous treat. Cromer was the SoCon Tournament Most Outstanding Player, and scored a career-high 41 points in a semifinal win over Samford.
Cromer, a senior shooting guard, had a total of 74 points in three SoCon Tournament games, including 23 in the title clash with UNCG. Cromer has come up in big moments all season for Forbes’ Bucs, including scoring 32 points in a crucial late-season overtime win over Furman. He tied a SoCon record with nine triples in the win over Samford. For the season, Cromer has connected on 103 triples to rank second in the SoCon in three-pointers made, and ranks 10th in the SoCon three-point field goal percentage (40.4%).
Cromer will match up against Florida’s talented point guard Kevaughn Allen (13.9 PPG, 2.7 RPG). Allen is a quick shooting guard that comes into Thursday afternoon’s contest leading the Gators in scoring. Allen has had some outstanding performances himself this season, including a 26-point effort in a win over South Carolina and a 23-point outing in a win over Tennessee. He scored a season-high 29 points in one of the three losses to Vanderbilt.
Allen leads the Gators with 71 made triples this season, and is shooting 42.2 percent from three. He’s joined in the backcourt by senior point guard Kasey Hill (9.8 PPG, 4.6 APG). Hill could be the X-factor for the Gators, and is probably Florida’s best on-the-ball defender. He was a Second-Team All-SEC selection and also garnered SEC All-Defensive Team honors in 2016-17. He is just the sixth player in SEC history to reach 1,000 points, 500 assists and 175 steals in a career.
Canyon Barry—son of Rick Barry and a College of Charleston transfer—will be a nice complement at guard coming off the bench. He was the SEC’s top sixth man this past season.
Cromer is joined in the ETSU backcourt by A.J. Merriweather (8.6 PPG, 3.6 RPG) and Desonta Bradford (10.6 PPG, 4.5 RPG). Merriweather and Bradford have been reliable veterans all season for the Bucs. Bradford was excellent in the SoCon Tournament for the Bucs, garnering All-SoCon Tournament First Team honors. In the SoCon quarterfinal win over Mercer, Bradford tied a career-high with 21 points.
Both Bradford and Merriweather are excellent on-the-ball defenders, and Merriweather—a player who has battled injuries throughout his career—recently went over 1,000 points for his career and might be the most improved shooter on the ETSU roster.
The inside game will also be key in this matchup, as the Gators have struggled in the paint since losing John Egbunu to a season-ending knee injury in mid-February. The 6-8 redshirt junior had been averaging 7.8 PPG and 6.6 RPG prior to his injury. Egbunu was one of the “glue guys” for Florida and was a rim protector on the defensive end with his outstanding athleticism. Senior Justin Leon (7.0 PPG, 3.7 RPG) and junior Devin Robinson (10.9 PPG, 6.1 RPG).
ETSU counters with Hanner Mosquera-Perea (8.4 PPG, 4.6 RPG) and Tevin Glass (8.9 PPG, 6.2 RPG). Both know a little something about big-time competition, having transferred in from Indiana and Wichita State, respectively. Both are good athletes, with Glass being the more polished offensive weapon, while Mosquera-Perea is a great rim protector on the defensive end for ETSU.
This game should be among the most exciting in the first couple of days of the tournament, and if you like up-and-down, free-flowing basketball, this is the game for you. Florida comes in averaging 78.3 PPG, but gives up 79.9 PPG. On the other hand, the Bucs come in averaging 79.9 PPG and surrendering 69.4 PPG. ETSU ranks among the top-10 nationally in field goal percentage (49.1%). Expect the SoCon’s improvement and depth to show in this one, as ETSU gives the league its first tournament win since Davidson in 2008.
ETSU 82, Florida 78