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Steve Forbes is building East Tennessee State into a mid-major power

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In three quick seasons, Forbes has found a formula for success in Johnson City.

NCAA Basketball: East Tennessee State at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

It can be argued East Tennessee State head coach Steve Forbes has forced the rest of the SoCon to step up its game.

With an eye for junior college talent and a penchant for team-first basketball, Forbes has helped the Bucs to a total of 76 wins over the past three seasons, including regular season and tournament titles in 2016-17. The Bucs have made the SoCon Championship game in Forbes’ three seasons at the helm, which is impressive given the diverse cast of college basketball journeymen Forbes recruits.

“We’re looking for guys with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder with something to prove,” Forbes said. “I like to use this term: Recruit Burger King All-Americans to kick McDonald’s All-American butt.”

Forbes played and coached at the JuCo level, so naturally he’s always had a special place in his heart for the JuCo player. He’s had the unique perspective as both a player and coach at that level of basketball, giving him insights that maybe other Division I coaches might not be privy to in the recruiting process — specifically how junior college talent might equate at the Division I level.

“My influences in my style of coaching would go all the way back to my junior college days when I played junior college in the ‘80s,” Forbes said. “I’ve coached JuCo for 11 years in my career. You know each year in junior college you’re changing your roster and you have kids coming and going because they are moving on to the next level, so you’re kind of in a constant state of flux. I don’t mind that. It doesn’t intimidate me.”

Few SoCon coaches have had as much recent success as Forbes, and one of the reasons for this is what I like to call the “Forbes Formula,” or the ability to assess JuCo players or talent that might have otherwise fallen through the cracks at bigger programs.

The fact that he has been able to do that at a program with tradition puts him in an enviable position. Forbes was tasked with injecting a new enthusiasm around the once-proud Bucs basketball program that plateaued during the final seasons of the Murry Bartow era.

“When I got the job, I had to evaluate the situation and what was the best way to improve our program,” Forbes said. “I didn’t get hired here to finish fifth or sixth, I got hired to challenge for championships and I felt the best way to do that was recruit really good high school players, recruit really good junior college players from good programs.”

In order to build on last seasons’ 25-9 campaign, Forbes will rely on a virtually new cast of characters. ETSU will have to lean on the leadership of players like Bo Hodges (last season’s co-SoCon Freshman of the Year), forward Mladen Armus (All-Freshman SoCon selection) and others that didn’t play as much, like Appalachian State transfer Patrick Good and forward Jeromy Rodriguez.

“Jeromy is a guy I was counting on having last year to be a key piece in our program,” Forbes said. “He had an unfortunate injury that forced him to miss the season, but he’s come back with a vengeance. Jeromy is one of the most skilled guys I have ever coached at any level at his position. He can really handle the ball and he’s a really good passer, and very unselfish and rebounds it. He’s not a great scorer, but can score around the basket but he knows his limitations and his role.”

Guard play will be important for the Bucs, who will add freshmen Davien Williamson, Tray Boyd III and Carlos Curtis to the backcourt. Chief among the newcomers, however, is high-profile JuCo transfer Isaiah Tisdale, who Forbes spoke highly of:

“One of the things that attracted me to [Tisdale] is he played at a winning high school team and played on a championship level junior college program at Vincennes,” Forbes said. “Once I got to know him, his character is off the charts. He’s a tremendous person and leader, he wants to win and knows how to play. He had an injury this summer, which caused him to miss most of the summer, but he’s back and playing and we’re looking for big things out of him.“

Tisdale will join the aforementioned Hodges, who had the best offseason according to Forbes.

“The player that had the best summer is Bo Hodges,” Forbes said. “Bo had to play inside a lot last year because of Jeromy’s injury, but he’ll play out on the perimeter this year, and he shot over 50% from three during the summer and he’s really expanded his game and he looks like a guy that will contend for all-league honors this year.”

Once again, The expectation level will be as high as the skyline dominated by the beautiful mountains of East Tennessee and the Tri-Cities area. But that’s how Forbes likes it.

“One of my biggest strengths is getting people to play together and believe in one another,” Forbes said. “And we’ve been able to do that here.”