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East Tennessee State is built Steve Forbes tough

Despite adversity, the Bucs are still in position to live up to expectations.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 03 SoCon Championship - Chattanooga v ETSU Photo by Frank Mattia/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When East Tennessee State and Furman meet on Wednesday night at Freedom Hall in a game dubbed the “Brawl in the Hall,” it will be a small snapshot of the success the two programs have built under their respective head coaches over the past few years. Here’s the ETSU side of that story.

The Bucs have been built tough. That’s Steve Forbes tough.

Forbes has the Bucs playing at a level that might be their best since his arrival prior to the 2015-16 season, with a 23-4 record and realistic at-large case. Personally, Forbes has had to deal with the sudden death of his father last March, an injury to a star player early in conference play this season, and prior to even arriving to take the reins as head coach, an un-needed detour due to an NCAA show-cause penalty.

Just this past Saturda,y Forbes had to navigate the Bucs to a road win at improved VMI without the services of his two top players, with one of those in contention for league player of the year accolades, as all-league performer Bo Hodges was dealing with the death of his cousin and was with his family. The Bucs were already down star forward Jeromy Rodriguez due to injury.

In addition to that, there was the Patrick Good situation. Good, who is one of of the Bucs star shooters, has struggled as of late for obvious reasons, as he and his girlfriend, Kenedy, were expecting a little baby girl on Saturday as Good and the Bucs rolled up I-81 for a weekend SoCon tilt in Lexington, VA. Forbes hoped he wouldn’t be nervous already down two veterans due to injury and personal reasons.

The unflappable Forbes seems to take it all in stride. His team followed suit, and despite having the stress of having a child born the same day, Good went out and seemingly played relieved for the first time in a month with a breakthrough 14-point effort, as he was the second-leading scorer in ETSU’s 72-67 road win against the Keydets, setting up the Wednesday night showdown with Furman.

ETSU heads into the matchup with Furman with a 23-4 overall record and a 12-2 in league play, which is tied atop the league standings with Furman.

Since taking over in 2015-16, Forbes has more than produced for the Bucs faithful—he’s been elite. He has a 123-43 overall mark through now almost five seasons at the helm.

The native Iowan has won 20 or more games in all five seasons, including helping ETSU notch its 10th NCAA Tournament appearance in 2017. However, after a championship loss to in UNCG in 2018 and a semifinal loss to eventual champion Wofford last season, the hunger to make it back is there and ever present.

Forbes has the Bucs in the midst of potentially its best season in 29 years. It’s not uncommon to hear at-large conversations going on at OT’S Sports Bar in downtown Johnson City. That hasn’t happened since the glory days of Bucs basketball nearly three decades ago, when the 10th-ranked Bucs were the mid-major toast of college hoops back in 1991.

ETSU has been almost flawless through their first 26 games, with losses to North Dakota State, No. 3 Kansas, Furman and Mercer as the only teams able get the better of the Bucs.

The Bucs have experienced much of the same spotlight Furman and Wofford enjoyed last season without having been ranked, as both the Paladins and Terriers were at different in 2018-19. ETSU has remained a hot topic of conversation whenever various major media outlets discuss mid-majors and their odds of gaining an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

The Bucs have maintained a NET ranking from the high 40s to the low 50s the past few weeks, thanks in large part to a 74-63 drubbing of SEC second place LSU just prior to the end of conference play.

Perhaps what makes it most impressive is the Bucs have been able to do all of this without arguably their most-talented player over the better part of the conference season, in foward and backboard assault artist Jeromy Rodriguez.

NCAA Basketball: East Tennessee State at Kansas
Losing Jeromy Rodriguez was a big blow for ETSU, but Forbes has kept the wins coming.
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Rodriguez is more than just a Dennis Rodman, however, he has moves around the hoop and is a highly-skilled passer. He was a big part of why Forbes’ Bucs were so dominant in the win at LSU.

But despite losing a teammate affectionately referred to as “Romy” by fans, coaches and teammates, ETSU has been tough with or without him.

Rodriguez was originally set to leave to turn pro at the end of last season to do what seems to be a theme with this team—help his family back in the Dominican Republic. However, two weeks later, Rodriguez decided to return and give it one more shot at a run at the SoCon Tournament title.

Unfortunately, Rodriguez’s nagging foot issues continued, and the season for him at least, hasn’t gone according to the plan he had hoped as he hasn’t played since Jan. 4. However, despite that, he might still return and the Bucs might still be in the same position come March.

The Bucs have showed off their depth by having other players step forward. Players like Central Connecticut State graduate transfer Joe Hugley and John A. Logan transfer Vonnie Patterson have been the glue guys in the absence of Rodriguez. Patterson in particular has been a gritty defender, and has been that clutch performer that often doesn’t show up on a stat sheet.

Despite the adversity, the Bucs expect to be in this position now. What you have Wednesday night at Freedom Hall is a truly beautiful personification of mid-major basketball.

For ETSU, who come into the matchup with the Paladins winners of five straight, it’s been the play of Daivien Williamson, too, in the absence of Rodriguez that has really come on as of late, and he’s coming off a strong performance at VMI the last time out. The sophomore guard scored 20 points, which included an 11-for-11 performance from the line.

Not to be overlooked is Lucas N’Guessan. The seven-footer has been outstanding and is having an all-conference type season, entering the matchup with the Paladins with 10-straight double-digit scoring performances.

Even a player like freshman wing Charlie Weber has had big moments, as he came up with an offensive rebound and put-back when the Bucs were in desperate need of points at a crucial juncture of the game in ETSU’s road win at VMI.

Despite the adversity and other obstacles Forbes has had to manage on and off the court since last March, he has kept ETSU focused on its goal and it has not gotten off track. It is a testament to Forbes’ midwest toughness and bravado, as well as his personality to keep things lighthearted when the moment calls for it. Forbes has done it with class like only he can.

Forbes is undeniably one of our favorite coaches at mid-major madness because he is all about being tough—both mentally and physically—and teaches his team’s to be the right kind of people within that toughness, and his self-deprecating humor is always refreshing to see. His personality no doubt filters down to his team. They learn to laugh with him, or most of the time at him, which in turn helps keeps adversity and stress at bay. Forbes knows that. He is a shrewd leader. We can’t wait to see how the Bucs finish out the season.