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The Other Top 25 preseason rankings: No. 11 East Tennessee State Buccaneers

On paper, the Bucs look like the deepest team Steve Forbes has had in Johnson City.

East Tennessee State Buccaneers v Villanova Wildcats Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

2018-19 Record: 24-10 (13-5 SoCon, T-3rd), CIT First Round
Key Returning Players: Jeromy Rodriguez (F, Sr.), Tray Boyd III (G, Sr.), Patrick Good (G, Jr.), Bo Hodges (G, Jr.), Daivien Williamson (G, So.), Octavion Corley (C, Jr.), Isaiah Tisdale (G, Sr.), Lucas N’Guessan (C, Sr.)
Key Losses: Mladen Armus (transferred to Boise State)

Key Newcomers: Vonnie Patterson (F, Jr. via. Southeasern Missouri State), Damari Monsato (F, Fr), Joe Hugley (F, Sr. via Central Connecticut State), Charlie Weber (F, Fr.)

Believe it or not, the best basketball in the Volunteer State has been found at East Tenneesee State in recent years.

Head coach Steve Forbes’ 100 wins in the past four seasons is 12 more than the next-closest team in Tennessee over that span (More than Rick Barnes’ 88 wins at the University of Tennessee during that same span). This year, the Bucs add transfers in from Southeast Missouri State and Central Connecticut State, making them the likely preseason favorites in the SoCon.

East Tennessee State is coming off a 24-win campaign and returns its top seven scorers for the 2019-20 season — including four of five starters. Despite those 24 wins and a postseason appearance in the CIT, the season seemed at times like a roller-coaster ride. ETSU’s chances at an NCAA Tournament bid fell short with a SoCon Tournament loss to eventual champion Wofford.

Key Non-Conference Games:

There are some real intriguing non-conference games for the Bucs — including two games against Power-5 foes — starting with Kansas in the Maui on the Mainland tournament.

The second power five matchup will be against the LSU Tigers. An interesting sidenote is ETSU assistant coach Brooks Savage was once an assistant under LSU head coach Will Wade. Perhaps he has the scout for this game and can lend some expertise on Wade and the Tigers.

Perhaps the game that sticks out most on the 2019-20 schedule is the renewal of the rivalry on the hardwood between East Tennessee State and Appalachian State. It will be the first meeting the Bucs and Mountaineers since the 2011-12 season, when the Bucs blitzed the Mountaineers with a 65-48 win in Boone.

Nov. 14 vs. Winthrop
Nov. 19 at Kansas
Nov. 26 vs.Appalachian State
Dec. 7 at North Dakota State
Dec. 18 at LSU

Three Things to Watch:

The Bucs have the best backcourt in the SoCon

This year, Forbes is much more comfortable about ETSU’s point guard situation than he was last season. The quintet of Daivien Williamson, Bo Hodges, Isaiah Tisdale, Tray Boyd III and Patrick Good are as good as any backcourt in mid-major basketball.

Isaiah Tisdale (8.8 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.2 SPG) and Daivien Williamson (9.5 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 2.5 APG) split time running the point. Both Tisdale and Williamson got valuable time for the Bucs last season; both will provide key depth at the point guard position.

Alongside them, Bo Hodges (10.3 PPG, 3.1 APG, 52 turnovers, 1.1 SPG, 54.0 FG%), Patrick Good (10.4 PPG, 39.0% from three, 80.8% FT) and Tray Boyd III (12.2 PPG, 36.8% from three) round out the five veterans returning in the backcourt. Hodges ended up on the preseason All-Southern Conference team, as selected by the coaches, but Good and Boyd had cases for that recognition as well.

Hodges, a junior from Nashville, Tenn, might be the Bucs’ best all-around basketball player, as he gets its done on both ends of the floor. However, he battled injuries early last season during non-conference play and really wasn’t 100% until February. He eventually showed up big down the stretch for ETSU during the regular-season, and made some clutch shots in the Bucs SoCon Tournament quarterfinal win over Chattanooga.

As good as Hodges can be offensively and as much athleticism as he has on the offensive glass, the strength of his overall game is probably on the defensive end of the floor, as he is one of the premier defenders in all of mid-major basketball. Though he is primarily guard throughout his career, he is versatile enough to play any position 1-4.

Can the Bucs establish consistent frontcourt depth?

Size-wise, it’s safe to say ETSU is the biggest team in the Southern Conference on the interior, with two seven-footers, a 6’9” newcomer and two 6’7” players.

On paper at least, it looks as if head coach Steve Forbes more than off-set the loss of Mladen Armus, who transferred to Boise State, but what Forbes will need is consistency in the frontcourt other than senior Jeromy Rodriguez.

Keep an eye on newcomer Joe Hugley, who transferred in from Central Connecticut State. The 6’7” forward averaged 12.3 PPG and 5.2 RPG in about 22 minutes of floor action last season as a Blue Devil. He finished the season with 18 double-figure performances.

The two seven-footers are Lucas N’Guessan and Octavion Corley. Corley redshirted last season for the Bucs, and he’s ready to be a contributing factor for Forbes this season. For his size, has good footwork and mobility giving the Bucs yet another skilled big man.

N’Guessan, who surprisingly gained eligibility a year earlier than expected, will likely look to be more of an offensive factor this season. The native of De Lier, Netherlands saw action in a total of 23 games, with a total of 10 starts and finished the season averaging 4.5 PPG and 5.0 RPG, while shooting a whopping 72.3% from the field albeit on a 71-shot sample size.

Jeromy Rodriguez could be the best player in the SoCon

ETSU’s crown jewel underneath — and maybe the top player in the Southern Conference — is without question Jeromy Rodriguez.

Rodriguez (11.2 PPG, 10.9 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.3 SPG, 55.5 FG%) decided to return to ETSU a couple weeks after announcing he would test the NBA Draft waters in order to support his family back home in the Dominican Republic. With Rodriguez back in the fold for the Bucs, it could take the Bucs from being just a good basketball team to a special one.

Last season saw Rodriguez garner first-team All-SoCon honors by both the media and coaches, while also earning praise from the National Association of Basketball Coaches by receiving Division I All-District honors.

He set new career-highs for points on a pair of occasions last season, posting 21 points in games against both UT-Martin and in a late-season SoCon clash with Furman. He finished the season ranked eighth nationally with 10.9 rebounds per game, was 13th in offensive rebounds per game (3.42), 18th in defensive rebounds-per-game (7.52) and 23rd in double-doubles (15). Additionally, Rodriguez also finished with 64 assists, 44 steals and 21 blocks, showing his incredible ability on both ends of the floor.

The X Factor

This team needs to stay healthy. Unfortunately, last season and this summer don’t inspire too much confidence.

During the offseason, ETSU embarked on a summer European tour without Jeromy Rodriguez and Patrick Good, who both stayed home to recover from offseason surgeries. Both Rodriguez and Good should be good to go for the season opener on Nov. 1 against non-Division 1 Limestone.

Bo Hodges wasn’t fully healthy until February last season, and it affected the Bucs on both ends of the floor.

Keeping this team healthy could not only make this group the best Forbes has had in Johnson City in his five-year tenure, but also lead to ETSU’s return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2016-17 season.