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Bucs set for showdown with Illinois

Joe Avento • Dec 14, 2018 at 7:21 PM

East Tennessee State’s basketball team will be traveling in uncharted territory in more ways than one on Saturday afternoon.

The Bucs will play at Illinois in the two schools’ first meeting, and ETSU will be trying to beat a team from the Big 10 Conference for the first time.

“It’s going to be very interesting, very exciting,” Bucs point guard Isaiah Tisdale said. “We’re definitely ready for it. I’m very excited to play against a Big 10 team. A lot of teams in our league have a win against big teams. Our coaches have us believing it’s our time now.”

The two teams tip off at 2 p.m. in State Farm Center, where the Illini routinely play in front of more than 11,000 fans.

“I think it’s important to get off to a good start and keep the crowd out of it,” said ETSU coach Steve Forbes, whose team brings an 8-3 record into the game.

Getting off to good starts has been tough for the Bucs, who have made a habit of coming from behind in their victories. In their last outing, an 80-62 win over UT-Martin, they trailed for much of the first half and were still tied with 13 minutes left before pulling away.

“We always start kind of slow,” said Bucs forward Jeromy Rodriguez, who is second in the country in rebounding at 12.4 per game. “We have to fix it. Every game from now on, we have to start from the jump.”

BALL SECURITY KEY

The Bucs average almost 15 turnovers a game and their 161 miscues are the second-most in the Southern Conference. They’d better figure something out before Saturday because Illinois is forcing almost 18 turnovers a game.

“We can’t turn the ball over,” Forbes said. “That’s really big against Illinois because they’re one of the top teams in the country at turning teams over. Ball security will be really important.

“The majority of ours have been from us trying to do too much with the ball. Unlike most years, a lot of our turnovers are coming from the post. Some of that is because teams are doubling us. They have to be able to handle that kind of pressure and make the pass out of the double team.”

Illinois uses a lot of pressure defense and Forbes expects the Illini to try to take away ETSU’s passing lanes. The Bucs pride themselves on making the extra pass, and when things are going well, it leads to easy baskets. They have been credited with an assist on 54 percent of their field goals.

On Saturday, though, ETSU is expected to tweak its offense.

“It’s not a normal-type game,” Forbes said. “We’re going to have to make some plays off the dribble. It’s not going to be pass, pass, pass against these guys. We have to make some adjustments, but we’ll be ready.”

SCOUTING ILLINOIS

Trent Frazier (6-1 sophomore) leads the team in scoring, averaging 14.4 points a game. Ayo Dosunmu (6-5 freshman) is at 12.0 and Aaron Jordan (6-5 senior) averages 10.4.

Junior point guard Andres Feliz, a former teammate of Rodriguez on the Dominican Republic national team and in junior college, came off the bench to score 19 points in Illinois’ last game, a 77-74 win over UNLV.

The Illini come in 3-7 and none of the seven losses were to cupcakes. They have fallen to Georgetown, Gonzaga, Iowa State, Xavier, Nebraska, Notre Dame and Ohio State.

“Their record isn’t indicative of how good they are,” Forbes said. “I think they’ve played a really hard schedule.”

COACHING FRIENDS

Second-year Illinois coach Brad Underwood has a long history with Forbes, dating back to the 1990s when they were both junior college coaches.

“He was one of the first guys I knew in coaching,” Forbes said. “We worked camps together. I’ve known Brad as long as any coach I’ve ever known.”

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