Suddenly, ETSU has become a defensive team, and that’s just fine with coach Steve Forbes, whose team has won seven of its last eight games and plays host to Samford on Wednesday at 7 p.m. inside Freedom Hall.
“They’ve bought in,” Forbes said. “It’s something we’ve really emphasized since June, that we needed to get better defensively to win a championship. We’ve done a really good job to this point of improving in the areas we needed to improve — mostly defending the 3-point line, still getting in the gaps and stripping and ripping and taking away dribble-penetration.”
Over the last four games, the Bucs have held their opponents to 225 points. It’s the best four-game defensive stretch in Forbes’ five seasons at the school and hasn’t been topped since the 2011-12 season when ETSU held four consecutive opponents to a total of 219 points.
“We’ve been working on it every single day,” Bucs forward Joe Hugley said. “We pride ourselves on it. We like each other a lot. We communicate on defense. We know if we defend, our offense is going to come. We’ve proven we can be a really great offensive team. If we can keep defending, I think we have a chance at doing some really great things.”
The Bucs come into Wednesday night’s game 15-3 overall, 4-1 in the Southern Conference and have won all 10 of their home games. They lead the league in blocked shots and 3-point defense and are second in scoring defense and opponents’ field goal percentage.
“Defense, a lot of times, is being in the right spot,” Forbes said. “Sometimes it can just be two or three steps in one direction. Some of it is they’re getting older. They’ve been through it. They’ve seen all these styles of play now. They have a pretty clear understanding of how to guard them.”
While the defense has been dominant, ETSU’s offense has been dormant. The Bucs have slowed down ever since scoring 117 points against Division II Mars Hill. Since that game, they’ve averaged 57.5 points in four outings. They’ve managed to win three of them.
“I went back and watched a lot of it,” Forbes said. “It’s not our execution. We’re really executing at a pretty high level. It’s just making shots. We have some guys who typically make open shots that are not.”
The Bucs have been shooting 37 percent during the scoring drought, including 23 percent from 3-point range.
“We can’t continue to shoot like that and still win,” Forbes said. “We have to shoot better. Somewhere along the line, somebody’s going to step up and start making them. The most encouraging part of the offensive drought is that we’ve made more free throws than our opponents have attempted in league play. That’s a huge thing for us right now.”
Jeromy Rodriguez continues to be out after injuring the same foot on which he had preseason surgery. The senior forward was still not back at practice on Tuesday and the extent of his injury hasn’t been made known.
“It’s just day to day is the best I can say,” Forbes said. “He’s working diligently in his rehab. I can’t really put a time table on it. Romy wants to play, but for a basketball player, to have issues with your feet, that’s a hard thing to deal with.”
Vonnie Patterson has started in Rodriguez’s absence and Hugley, who led the team with 14 points and eight rebounds in last week’s win at UNC-Greensboro, has been getting more playing time as well.
Rodriguez is the team’s leading rebounder and third-leading scorer.
The Bulldogs come in 8-10 overall, 2-2 in the SoCon and are coming off a 105-67 loss at Chattanooga.
Senior point guard Josh Sharkey leads the conference in scoring (18.7) and assists (8.5). He’s second in the country in assists to Michigan’s Zavier Simpson who averages 8.9.
In addition, Brandon Austin is 10th in the league in scoring at 14.2 points per game.
Tray Boyd leads ETSU in scoring at 13.1 points per game, while Hodges is at 13.0. Two points separate them.