Going into the season, East Tennessee State looked to be in almost certain rebuilding mode. After making the NCAA Tournament last season and dominating the Atlantic Sun, ETSU lost four starters and was presumed to be of little consequence to the A-Sun race. But from the beginning, the team outperformed expectations. They finished conference play 13-7, but in the parity-driven Atlantic Sun, that placed them one game behind the four-way tie for the conference title. At the conference tournament, they pulled two upsets in their first two games and then defeated Mercer, playing on their home court to win the Championship. What was thought to be a season in transition, became the Buccaneers’ ninth NCAA berth in school history. If you don’t know much about ETSU (and honestly, if you don’t live in Johnson City, Tennessee, why would you?), here are some tidbits:
The team’s leading scorer at 14 ppg is a player who until this season, had only scored 75 points in his two-year career for the Bucs. Tommy Hubbard was a highly touted recruit for ETSU coming out of high school and arrived on campus expecting to make a huge impact from Day one and become a shining star at a smaller school. But a combination of injuries, playing time issues and collegiate adjustment caused Hubbard to struggle early and for Coach Murray Bartow to even suggest a redshirt season. Last year he began the season as a redshirt, but had it pulled with nine games to go and became a key cog in an ETSU team that won its league and played #1 seed Pittsburgh close in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Now he leads the team in scoring and has even garnered interest from NBA scouts. There may be no player in America who has improved more.
The Buccaneers are coached by Murry Bartow , now in his seventh season in Johnson City. Bartow started his coaching career by taking over for a legend, his father Gene Bartow who literally started the basketball program at UAB. His time in Blazer land was rocky, as he made the NCAA Tournament only once in six years at the school. When he was dismissed, he took the road less traveled to the hills of Eastern Tennessee and has now become one of the candidates for National Coach of the Year. There was a time that Murry Bartow looked headed to the Pat Knight school of coaches who couldn’t reach the heights of their famous fathers. But Bartow now has it rolling at ETSU land and is garnering attention for more than just his last name.
ETSU’s nickname is the “Buccaneers”, an odd decision considering that there are very few places on Earth more landlocked than East Tennessee. But a pirate theme was chosen nonetheless and visitors are to be warned that when arriving on campus, they could be held up for ransom, forced to “walk the plank” or mysteriously accosted by men wearing eye patches and funny hats. Their mascot is known as “Bucky” and was once part of a duo of mascots, “Bucky and Pepper”, but like Ryan Seacrest telling Brian Dunkleman, “Seacrest, Out”, Bucky got rid of his lesser half and got a makeover to appear more menacing. What you are left with is a pirate that looks a bit like Wario from “Mario Cart” and seems to scare little children. Be careful what you wish for.
East Tennessee State is located in Johnson City, Tennessee, which may be most famous to you as a key line in Travis Tritt’s hit “Bonnie and Clyde.” If however you are not as familiar with Travis Tritt lyrics as you should be, there are still reasons to care about Johnson City. It was founded as a railroad depot, but quickly gained prominence as one of the centers of old-time country music producing such stars as “Fiddlin Charlie Johnson” and “Blind Lemon Jefferson.” The need to give descriptive nickname to its residents helps explain the current mayor’s name “Edict Declarin’ Williams” and the locals preference to call the ETSU Coach, “Drawin Them Plays Bartow.” Johnson City is also the last city in America to still have a “Barney Fife” Ordinance on its books, which allows the town to deputize citizens in times of need…such as when Buccanneers strike.
Unless you count Timothy Busfield, who was on the 1980s television show Thirtysomething (and I don’t), the famous alumni section of the ETSU handbook begins and ends with country star Kenny Chesney. The former country crooner who has recently turned into Jimmy Buffet-lite, graduated with a degree in advertising, which he brags about when he is hanging out with Peyton Manning (what, you didn’t know they were friends?). “Beach Kenny” would like you to know that he is having a cocktail now and life is grand out here on the island. And oh yeah, go ETSU.
So there you have it, your East Tennessee State Buccaneers. This probably isn’t the team that can upset a #1 seed, but it is the team that will have a beach party and take your bounty while doing it.