Brooks Savage has already hit the ground running in Johnson City, Tenn. He had to as East Tennessee State has been a program in peril over the past three seasons since Savage last called the Tri-Cities home when he as an assistant coach under Steve Forbes. Savage spent five years as an assistant in what was a magical time for ETSU men’s basketball.
In two years under the direction of Desmond Oliver, things were headed in the wrong direction. ETSU posted a 27-37 record the past two seasons, and during that time, the Bucs endured a couple of home losing streaks, which included an eight-game skid this past season – the longest since Freedom Hall became the official home of Bucs basketball prior to the 2014-15 season.
For a quick overall recap of ETSU basketball in the past three seasons, it would be hard to tell it was a program that posted a school-record 30 wins just three years ago. The Bucs are just a combined 40-49 in the past three seasons under both Oliver and Jason Shay.
Last season, the Bucs went 12-20, which included just an 8-10 mark in SoCon play. After another brief stay in Asheville following a 69-57 quarterfinal loss to Western Carolina to end the season, athletics director Dr. Richard Sander was ready to make the change.
Within weeks, ETSU announced that the 37-year-old Savage would be the new man for the men’s basketball program. He became the 19th head coach of the program on March 19. Twitter erupted with excitement among ETSU’s loyal and boisterous fanbase.
“The familiarity for the area and the job will make the transition a lot smoother,” Savage said. “It’s helped me use my learning curve you might say, and we were just here three years ago. The landscape has changed quite a bit since we were here last, and the league is a lot different… When we were here before, we were doing a lot with grad transfers and getting transfers eligible from waivers and things. So, we were kind of doing things and in the portal before the portal was en vogue, so to speak.”
Savage will be charged with having to replace ETSU’s two main all-conference performers in forward Jalen Haynes (14.6 PPG, 6.4 RPG) and Jordan King (15.6 PPG, 3.6 RPG). While King led the team with 69 triples, he struggled to find the kind of scoring efficiency.
Despite a 42-point scoring effort in an early conference win over The Citadel, King connected on just 31.5% of his 3-point shots, a drop from his 43% clip the season before. He transferred to Richmond.
Background on Savage
Savage has built up quite the resume in his 12 years as an assistant coach. He’s been prepared by some of the best, which of course includes Forbes. This season will mark the seventh time he’s been a part of a first-year staff.
Savage knows Southern Conference basketball, having been a part of the league’s two most decorated programs. He served as an assistant coach at Chattanooga from 2013-15 under the direction of Will Wade and as an assistant with ETSU from 2015-2020.
“That rivalry has been heated no matter what side I’ve been on, but it’s been a good rivalry and a good one in a lot of ways for the league as a whole,” he said. “It’s a fun rivalry, and I think when both ETSU and Chattanooga are good and competing to win the league, I think it’s good for the league…It’s a lot like the Yankees and Red Sox…When they are good it seems like it makes the whole league better.”
During what was a combined seven combined years spent as an assistant at both East Tennessee State and Chattanooga, Savage’s teams combined to win 79% of its conference games, posting a combined 98-26 record in the SoCon during that span, while winning 72% of their total games (170-67) over that span.
In his first year as an assistant at ETSU, his former school topped his new school in the conference title game with several of the players he helped recruit. He then helped the Bucs claim SoCon Tournament titles in both 2017 and 2020.
Savage went with Forbes to Wake Forest, where they transformed the Demon Deacons from ACC cellar-dwellers into contenders in the span of three years.
The 2021-22 season saw Wake Forest finish 25-10, which ended with an Elite Eight run in the National Invitation Tournament (NIT). It was the third largest turnaround in college basketball history, as the Demon Deacons saw a 19-win improvement. They also won 18 games at Lawrence Joel Coliseum, which was tied for the most home wins in program history.
It was the most victories for a Wake Forest team since the 2004-05 season, and the back-to-back double-digit win seasons in the ACC marks the first time the Demon Deacons have been able to accomplish that feat since the late 90s.
The project of rebuilding
Savage has attacked the transfer portal with purpose and procured some talent to help in the immediate future. He added 6-foot-10-inch forward Jadyn Parker from North Florida.
“He can be a difference maker for us as a rim protector and in this league,” Savage said. “I believe that is something that is vital for us…When I was here before, we were so successful at having some big men be really good defensively at the rim.”
He has also introduced a new guard into the fold for the Bucs: 6-foot-4-inch Ebby Asamoah from Delaware. During his time as a Blue Hen, Asamoah played in 97 games, which included 50 starts. He scored 583 points, amassed 212 rebounds, dished out 62 assists, recorded 59 steals and blocked 35 shots. He will help right away, especially on the defensive end of the floor.
Another recent addition for the Bucs includes forward Karon Boyd, who comes to ETSU from Division II USC Aiken, where he averaged 11.2 PPG and 5.6 RPG as a freshman. He helped the perennially strong Pacers to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Division II Tournament. He is a player who will likely remind Bucs fans of former standout Bo Hodges.
Savage places a high premium on an elite point guard. His track record speaks for itself as he helped procure some excellent ones during his time as an assistant coach. Greg Pryor and Isaiah Tisdale are two examples.
Those two excellent point guards were sensational on both sides of the court. They each claimed Southern Conference Tournament Most Outstanding Performer honors following SoCon championships in 2016 and 2020, respectively.
“To mention those two guys, you kind of have an idea of the kind of identity I like to see our point guards have and what I kind of envision us to be like,” Savage said. “So, when you’re out there looking in the portal and you’re talking about ETSU identity, you’re looking and asking yourself… ‘who out there is like [Tisdale] or who out there is like Tray Boyd or who out there is like TJ Cromer or whoever that player may be from some of those past experiences.’”
Savage helped Wake Forest rank in third the ACC last season at 76.6 points per game. He will look to push the Bucs back to being a high-powered offense after scoring 69.1 points a game last season, which was lower than any Forbes-coached squad and the lowest scoring average since 2013.
“We wanna a be a program that plays fast,” Savage said. “During the last few years at Wake Forest we led the ACC in tempo and we were playing fast and we had some really, really good players and we will try to do a lot of the same things we have done at Wake Forest and even carry some stuff on from when we were here last time, like spacing, fundamentals, playing up-tempo.”