Cromer knows Merriweather’s value to ETSU

Joe Avento • Mar 16, 2017 at 9:30 AM

ORLANDO, Fla. — You don’t make it to the NCAA Tournament from a mid-major conference by being selfish. The players from East Tennessee State University have shared the basketball — and the credit — all season, and that’s been a big part of the team’s success.

Recently, one of the Bucs shared more than that.

After the Southern Conference tournament was finished and the ETSU players, coaches and fans were still reveling in winning the championship, the all-tournament team was announced.

ETSU’s Desonta Bradford and T.J. Cromer were honored for their stellar play. Cromer was the tournament’s most valuable player after scoring 64 points in the last two games.

One omission bothered the Bucs. When the all-tournament team was finished being announced, A.J. Merriweather’s name hadn’t been called.

That struck a nerve with Cromer, who was holding two plaques, one for making the all-tournament team and one for being the MVP.

So the Bucs’ leading scorer gave his all-tournament plaque to Merriweather, ETSU’s top defensive player who spent a lot of time diving on the floor during those three games in Asheville, North Carolina.

“That’s just T.J.,” Merriweather said Wednesday during a news conference at Amway Center in advance of the Bucs’ NCAA Tournament matchup wth Florida. “He’s real. He’s been that way since I met him, always genuine. Apparently they didn’t think I was deserving. It don’t matter. That’s just personal accolades.”

Merriweather had already received the award he wanted most — the SoCon’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. He’s in his fourth year and this was his last chance to go to the Big Dance. So he danced through the entire postgame celebration, and nothing — not even being left off the all-tournament team — was going to stop him.

Still, Cromer wanted more for his teammate.

“I feel like he deserved it,” Cromer said. “He’s a major key to our team. He guards the best offensive player on each team every night. Honestly, in my opinion, I felt it was disrespectful for him not to receive any award in the tournament when he was such a big key to our team.”

That kind of closeness has helped the Bucs go 27-7 and find themselves as a popular pick to upset the Gators on Thursday.

Before hitting the practice court, ETSU coach Steve Forbes compared his team to characters from the Land of Misfit Toys in the children’s Christmas show Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

“You know what I’m talking about,” Forbes said about his team, which is made up of junior-college and Division I transfers in addition to a few holdovers from Murry Bartow’s regime. “They all need a home. We all have a home here. We all have a story, and we’ve come together for a common goal, and that is to win and go to the NCAA Tournament.”

Merriweather has been called an “energy guy” ever since he stepped foot on campus. On Wednesday, he ended practice with a tremendous dunk. After bouncing the ball off the floor, he rose toward the hoop and almost hit his head on the corner of the backboard as he threw the ball through the basket.

It brought quite a reaction from his teammates, who seemed genuinely impressed with the 6-foot-2 guard’s acrobatics.

Merriweather let out a yell and practice was soon over.

It was a fitting end to a workout full of energy and excitement.

And on Thursday, Merriweather’s season will continue in the game’s biggest event while many all-tournament guys will be home watching on television.

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