The Bucs (8-4) will take on Wyoming (3-7) in the opening game of the tournament Friday at 7 p.m. They will play either Norfolk State or UTEP on Saturday, depending on the results. While the Bucs have prepared for Wyoming, most of the focus this week has been on themselves.
ETSU’s starters scored just three points in a 73-55 loss to Illinois last Saturday. It leaves the starting lineup for the Wyoming game up in the air, according to coach Steve Forbes. That excludes starting point guard Isaiah Tisdale, who is serving a one-game suspension for a flagrant 2 foul and ejection in the last game.
“That doesn’t mean it couldn’t be some of the same guys starting,” Forbes said. “They were notified after the game Saturday that every position was wide open. Obviously, we will have a new starting point guard, but after that, it’s wide open. I’ve obviously never had a game with the starters scoring three points, but that’s misleading because I didn’t play them in the second half where they would have scored some points. You have to give the guys credit who played in the second half because we outscored them.”
Guards Daivien Williamson with 19 points and Patrick Good with 11 led the Bucs in scoring against Illinois. For the season, Tray Boyd III leads the team at 12 points per game, followed by Good at 11.4 and Jeromy Rodriguez, who averages 11.3 points and 11.9 rebounds.
Other leaders are Isaiah Tisdale at 9.7 points, Mladen Armus with 8.8 points and eight rebounds, and Bo Hodges at 8.4 points per game.
While the travel difficulties the Bucs endured made it on ESPN’s SportsCenter, Forbes didn’t use that as an excuse for the poor performance. He also doesn’t want to overreact to the one bad game.
“The strength of our team is our depth and we can’t freak out,” Forbes said. “It’s one game. We went to Illinois and didn’t play well for a lot of reasons, but we have a deep team. Guys can’t look at it and say, ‘This is my spot.’ It’s not because they can be beaten out and we’re having some competition in practice.”
HOW ’BOUT THEM COWBOYS
Wyoming, out of the Mountain West Conference, is led by 6-foot-7 guard Justin James, whom Forbes calls a NBA prospect. The Louisiana native averages 24.5 points, 9.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game.
Hunter Maldonado, the team’s second-leading scorer, was injured in a hard fall in the team’s last game, a 90-87 loss to Denver. It was reported Tuesday night that Maldonado will be out for 4-6 weeks. Other leaders for the Cowboys include Jake Hendricks at 13.1 points per game and Hunter Thompson at 12.2.
The Cowboys have endured a rough start to the season, but scored a 73-64 win over South Carolina on Dec. 5. The Bucs look to have an advantage in rebounding, where they rank 10th in the country at 42.6 boards per game. On the flip side, Wyoming has been out-rebounded by an average of six per game.
The Sun Bowl tournament is the oldest holiday tournament in the country. It was renamed in 2009 to honor former UTEP coach and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Don Haskins, who coached the Miners from 1961-99, winning 719 games. Haskins, nicknamed “The Bear,” led then Texas Western to an 83-66 win over Adolph Rupp-coached Kentucky in the 1966 national championship game.
The famous contest, which led to the end of segregation in college basketball’s major programs, was the subject of the 2006 film “Glory Road.”
Lucas N’Guessan, the 7-foot transfer from Oklahoma State, made his season debut in the Illinois game — producing six points and three rebounds in 13 minutes.
He feels like he can go longer if needed. Forbes pointed out that N’Guessan has been practicing with the No. 1 and No. 2 teams all season, while the player talked about the on-court competition with posts Rodriguez and Armus.
“It can only make you better when you have guys like that,” he said. “Jeromy has been the No. 1 rebounder in the country. They make me a better player.”
Forbes added: “He’s fighting for playing time. If he beats the other guys out, it is what it is. It just adds to the competition on the team.”