“I’m excited about this weekend,” Forbes said Friday morning as his team prepared for the Southern Conference tournament with a shoot-around at Harrah’s Cherokee Center. “I’ve given them some examples of teams that were in the same situation they’re in and they lost in the first round of the tournament, never to be heard from again.”
The Bucs open the tournament Saturday at noon with a quarterfinal game against VMI. ETSU (27-4) earned the top seed in the 10-team field thanks to a 16-2 record in league play.
“It’s a cruel, one-and-done season now,” Forbes said. “It’s either March Madness or March sadness. What do they want it to be? I know what they want. But they’ve got to go get it.”
The Southern Conference has never had a team earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, so history says the Bucs had better win three games this weekend and earn the league’s automatic bid.
On the surface, their résumé would seem strong enough to warrant a strong look. They’re 39th in the NET rankings, a tool used by the NCAA tournament selection committee to order teams based on quality of wins and losses.
Last year, UNC Greensboro lost to Wofford in the SoCon tournament final and was on the bubble. A 28-6 UNCG team didn’t make the NCAA field. Instead, the Spartans were the first team out and had to play in the NIT.
“I really don’t know,” Forbes said when asked about his team’s chances at an at-large bid. “That’s why I really haven’t tried to put much stock into it. I think it would drive me crazy. Truthfully, it would probably piss me off. I just don’t want to be in that mindset.
“I know if it happens, then the following week I’ll have to be in that mindset. But right now, I just don’t see any sense being that way. That’s not why we came here.”
The Bucs had a very busy Friday in preparation for the tournament opener.
After their early morning shootaround, during which they got 30 minutes on the court, they worked out at a local high school at noon. They also had a walk-through at UNC Asheville scheduled for later in the evening once they knew who they would face in the quarterfinals.
“They’ve got a good mindset,” Forbes said. “They’re in a good place. We’ve got really good leadership and I think we’re ready to go.”
The Bucs enter the tournament on a nine-game winning streak after going 9-0 in February. They’re riding momentum, but Forbes says they still have room for improvement.
After the euphoria wore off from Saturday’s 68-67 win over Western Carolina — the game that clinched the SoCon regular- season title for the Bucs when Patrick Good went crazy from 3-point range down the stretch — Forbes said the video wasn’t pretty.
“Taking a realistic look at how we played — after looking at the film — we didn’t play well,” Forbes said. “We had a super-human effort from one person to win the game. You can’t do that. We’ve got to fix the issues that we had. We can’t do that here.”
VMI is the team nobody wants to face because of its style.
If the Keydets get hot from 3-point range, they can beat anybody in the tournament despite their 9-23 record. They beat Samford 96-78 Friday night in the opening round when they made 18 3-pointers to break the tournament record.
VMI is second in the country in 3-point shooting.
Travis Evee was voted the SoCon’s freshman of the year after averaging 12.6 points a game in the regular season. He’s scored at least 20 in seven games.
Garrett Gilkeson averages 10.3 points per game and leads the team in rebounding, assists and minutes played.
Jake Stephens, VMI’s 6-foot-9 center, had six of the 3-pointers and 25 points on Friday night. He was averaging 6.6 points before the game.
ETSU beat VMI twice during the season, but both games were close. The Bucs won 61-55 in Johnson City and 72-67 in Lexington, Virginia.