To say that no one expected the East Tennessee State University Buccaneers to be this good this year is hyperbole, but they had many doubters.
Despite winning the Southern Conference last year and appearing in their 10th NCAA tournament, both the preseason media and coach’s polls pegged the Buccaneers to finish fourth. SoCon coaches and reporters didn’t think ETSU could replicate the success of 2016-17, but Steve Forbes did.
“That stuff is more for fans,” Forbes said after his team’s win over Wofford Saturday night, dismissing the polls. “You still got to play the games.”
ETSU has played 23 games this year. In just four of them, it didn’t come out with a win, and two of those games were against major opponents – then No. 7 Kentucky and then No. 10 Xavier.
Since that two-point loss to the Musketeers at Cintas Center in Cincinnati, ETSU has been perfect. After Saturday’s win over Wofford, and an escape at The Citadel on Monday, ETSU has won 13 straight.
The Buccaneers are 65th overall in the KenPom rankings, but just 13 mid-majors rank ahead of them. The next highest SoCon team is Furman at No. 101.
With eight games left on its schedule, ETSU looks to be the favorite in the SoCon. Second meetings with UNC-Greensboro, Furman and Wofford won’t be walks in the park, but the Buccaneers are setting themselves up for another run to the NCAA tournament.
Forbes seemed jovial after his Bucs beat the Terriers at Jerry Richardson Indoor Stadium on Saturday. After doing a hit for the team’s radio broadcast, he bounced around the gym and talked with ETSU fans who made the trip to Spartanburg, Wofford coach Mike Young and a few other folks.
He kept a steady hand during the game. Forbes didn’t fuss with refs much, he didn’t yell at his players much. What Forbes was before, during and after the game, was confident.
When asked why his team has been so good this year, the third-year head coach quickly rattled off a list of reasons.
“We have strength in numbers. We play 10 guys and at a lot of minutes,” Forbes said. “We can wear teams down, we can play a lot of different ways. We’ve had six different leading scorers, so we depend on different guys. We don’t drop off when we sub. We start five seniors, even though we lost four starters last year, but a lot of these guys that return were guys that played a lot of minutes. So, I knew we would be good.”
Maybe that’s why others didn’t think ETSU would be as good as they were last year – because the Bucs lost four starters and another key bench contributor. How could they possibly reload?
When the Buccaneers made the tournament last year, Sports Illustrated featured Forbes in a story titled, “A misfit toy in a land full of them: Steve Forbes’s rocky path to East Tennessee State.”
As an assistant coach, Forbes was fired in 2011 from Tennessee for NCAA recruiting violations connected to Bruce Pearl hosting Aaron Craft at a backyard barbeque. Forbes went to the JUCO ranks to rebuild his career, going 62-6 as the head coach of Northwest Florida State. He then spent a few seasons on Gregg Marshall’s Wichita State staff before taking the ETSU job in 2015. He’s 69-24 since arriving in Johnson City.
The S.I. story was about how Forbes had built his 2016-17 team out of cast offs and transfers from the lower ranks and other programs. That squad went 27-8 and lost by 15 points to the fourth seeded Florida Gators in the tourney’s opening round.
Forbes again looked to the island of misfits to restock his roster.
6-foot-6 senior forward David Burrell came from Southwest Tennessee Community College. A Milwaukee, Wisconsin native, he on last year’s team as a reserve but is starting now. Peter Jurkin is a seven-footer from South Sudan who played in just 14 games last year. He started his college career at Indiana in 2013, but was granted a 6th year of eligibility for this season. Jurkin starts and leads ETSU in blocks with 28.
Jalan McCloud played in the NCAA tournament in 2017, but on the other side of the bracket with SWAC champion Texas Southern. He leads ETSU in assists with 87. Another starter, Jermaine Long, came to ETSU from Allen County Community College in Iola, Kansas.
Kanayo Obi-Rapu previously played at Longwood. Freshman guard Bo Hodges picked ETSU over an offer from Memphis. Freshman big Mladen Armus is from Serbia. Devontavius Payne, Jeromy Rodriguez, James Harrison and Dillon Reppart also come from JUCO’s.
“We have a lot of experience,” Forbes said. “Jalan McCloud is a really solid, tough guy that makes plays. Mladen Armus is a freshman that’s playing really well. Bo Hodges is good. So, we really have a great mix of guys. These are all guys that have played a lot of minutes.”
Hodges stepped up big for ETSU against The Citadel on Monday in Charleston. In 21 minutes of play off the bench, he scored 19 points and grabbed nine rebounds.
The bench has been a real weapon for ETSU. In 18 games this season, the unit has produced 25 points or more.
Forbes added that he thinks Rodriguez is “the second-best player” on the roster “for sure” but he hasn’t played all year due to a torn labrum.
But the best player on the roster has been at ETSU longer than Forbes. That’s senior guard Desonta Bradford.
“He can do it all,” Forbes said. “He can do so many things at his size with his athleticism.”
Bradford leads ETSU in scoring, rebounding, free throw percentage, steals, minutes played, and is second behind McCloud in assists. It’s cliché to refer to basketball players who do a variety of things well as a “Swiss Army Knife,” but Bradford truly does everything for ETSU. When the Buccaneers need a big play, they turn to Bradford, who is more reliable than rain in Seattle.
A 6-foot-4 guard out of Humboldt, Tennessee, Bradford had a handful of offers from mid-majors in high school, but sided with ETSU because his friend A.J. Merriweather went there. Merriweather graduated last year and now plays for the Harlem Globetrotters.
For Bradford, the campus in Johnson City felt like home.
“I knew AJ a little bit, and I came on my visit and everybody was genuine and real and the coaching staff and players just took me in,” Bradford said. “It was an easy decision.”
Bradford didn’t quite stuff the stat sheet last year like he’s doing now, but he said that he’s willing to do whatever it takes to go out on top as a senior. That means defending bigs, running the offense and hitting the big shots like he did at Wofford on Saturday. To close out the win in Spartanburg, Bradford scored 10 points over a five minute stretch that pushed ETSU’s lead to double digits.
On Monday in Charleston, he scored a career-high 23 points and grabbed 10 reounds to give his team an edge over the speedy Bulldogs of The Citadel.
“This is my last year, so I wanted to go out and do something special,” Bradford said.
Bradford is a pretty good scorer, rebounder and passer, but he’s also a solid defender. On Saturday night, he was tasked with chasing around one of the best three-point shooters in the country, Fletcher Magee.
Magee has made 94 three-pointers this year, which the second most in the NCAA behind Oakland’s Kendrick Nunn. He’s efficient from the arc too, making 47 percent of his attempts from there. On Saturday, Magee got his – scoring 21 points – but he also misfired on 11 shots, shooting just 35 percent from the field.
Like depth, defense has been another key to Wofford’s success this year.
ETSU ranks 35th in defensive efficiency according to KenPom with 96.2 points allowed per 100 possessions. That’s eighth among all mid-major’s.
“We have a bunch of resilient guys who want to win and do something special,” Bradford said. “We defend. Coach always talks about how defense travels, so we just try to defend at a high level every single night. Shots may not fall some nights, but we just got to keep defending.”
How does a mid-major make repeat trips to the NCAA tournament?
ETSU is testing out a recipe of swagger, efficiency, confidence and defense in 2018.
And so far, it’s working.