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Team preview: East Tennessee State

For the most comprehensive previews available on all 335 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2011-12 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857.

COACH AND PROGRAM

When a team wins 24 games and posts a 16-4 record within the conference, it can generally count on the kind of invitation every team covets: the NCAA Tournament. But when said school toils in the Atlantic Sun, a one-bid league, it's all about the conference tournament. No matter how good the rest of the year was, a few days in early- to mid March are going to decide your postseason fate.

In 2009 and 2010, East Tennessee State handled its business in the Atlantic Sun championship decider and was rewarded with a pair of the cherished invitations, coach Murry Bartow's second and third at the school. Things didn't go as planned last year, and a second-round exit at the hands of North Florida consigned the Bucs to the CollegeInsider.com Tournament. That's not a bad consolation prize, but when you're used to playing under the bright lights, it stings.

"That's the game we play," Bartow said. "When you're in a one-bid league, you know the rules of the game coming in. It really is all about March. You better figure out a way to win three games.

"You want a great conference record, but you know it ultimately comes down to the conference tournament. You use your schedule to prepare your team all year and hope to be at your best in March. We had a good year last year, but obviously we were disappointed we didn't play well in the tournament. We won the first game, but we didn't play well."

PLAYERS

The Bucs enter 2011-12 with an interesting cast that includes a pair of starters, a couple of key contributors returning from injury, a strong recruiting class and some part-timers from last season who have the opportunity to make bigger contributions. It's important that the diverse cast comes together, because the losses of conference Player of the Year Mike Smith (17.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg) and Justin Tubbs (10.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and Micah Williams (14.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg) rob the Bucs of more than 42 points per game. It's important for people to step up and step in if ETSU is going to reach for the top of the Atlantic Sun again this year, especially given everybody that's back at Belmont.

East Tennessee State Buccaneers

"When you lose the players we lost, it's not easy," Bartow said. "We lost three players who could not only score but three players who were tough and strong and athletic."

The departures create a great opportunity for 6-8, 210-pound senior forward Isiah Brown (10.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg), who has been a steady contributor but has yet to fulfill the promise he has shown in some big performances. Last year in the opener at Kentucky, he had 25 points and 14 boards. That proves what he can do, but he needs to show he can be dominant consistently.

"Right now, he's as talented as anybody in the program," Bartow said. "Can he do it consistently? Can he bring it out every day in practice and games? Right now, he's playing at a real high level. I think he can be as good as anybody in the league."

A big season from Brown would help a frontcourt that has some questions about where it will find points. Bartow knows that 6-6, 260-pound junior J.C. Ward (1.9 ppg, 2.5 rpg) will handle the "enforcer" role inside and do a lot of little things, but he's not going to overpower people offensively.

"He's a great team guy," Bartow said. "He's a great worker. Some nights, he gets three points and three rebounds, and people ask, 'Why do you play him so much?' He knows how to win. He does the dirty work, gets loose balls and rebounds and takes charges and defends. He's a very vocal leader behind the scenes, and he has a lot of experience."

Another invaluable frontcourt contributor is 6-4, 210-pound senior Tommy Hubbard (3.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg), who played in only four games last year because he could never recover completely from offseason surgery. Hubbard had a great 2009-10 season, averaging 13.9 points and 8.2 boards, and he should be one of the league's top board men this year.

"It's hard to describe his game," Bartow said. "He's not a forward. He's a 6-4 player. I call him a baller. You throw him out there, and he gets a lot of double-doubles. Nobody around works harder or competes harder. He gets a lot done."

The Bucs need a pair of freshmen to step in and contribute right away up front, beginning with 6-4, 185-pound Lester Wilson (Carter HS/Knoxville, Tenn.). Like Hubbard, Wilson doesn't look like a forward, size-wise, but he can play tough inside. As he grows, he'll become more of a perimeter weapon. Right now, Bartow will use him in a lot of different ways.

"He's a big-time athlete," Bartow said. "Athletically, he can play anywhere in the country. At that size, a lot of people didn't think he could play on the wing. He's definitely more of an inside player now, but hopefully he can develop so he can step out."

The other frontcourt freshman is 6-7, 200-pound John Walton (Mitchell HS/Memphis, Tenn.). Walton has great length and a pretty good athletic profile of his own. He'll start as a four man but has a skill level that can get him to the three, eventually.

The entire front line will benefit from a strong season by 6-8, 235-pound junior Lukas Poderis (1.3 ppg, 1.3 rpg). If Poderis can emerge in the middle, Brown can slide to the power forward position and Hubbard can play some three. That combination makes the Bucs' tougher up front.

Josh Johnson (0.5 ppg, 0.5 rpg), a 6-10, 210-pound sophomore who played in four games last year, rounds out the forward wall.

The guard lineup begins with 6-6, 200-pound senior point man Adam Sollazzo (9.2 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 4.0 apg). While not a prototypical lead guard, thanks to his height, Sollazzo is effective, particularly off the dribble. He gets into the lane as well as anybody in the league and can rise up over smaller defenders for buckets.

"He knows what he can do," Bartow said. "He can shoot really well from 15-16 feet and in. Where he's really good is getting into the lane and bouncing over people."

Expect 6-3, 180-pound junior Sheldon Cooley (4.5 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 1.5 apg) to be Sollazzo's primary backup. He can also play alongside him.

"I'm high on him," Bartow said. "I'm pushing him hard, because I think he can be one of the better guards in the league. He has shown flashes. He's athletic, smooth and has a good basketball IQ. He's not a great shooter, but he can slash and score. He's very much in the mix."

Another option at the point is 6-3, 170-pound redshirt freshman Ryan Woumn (Lynn English HS/Lynn, Mass.), whom Bartow calls a "great leader." But he isn't sure yet how much Woumn will get on the court.

Another redshirt, 6-2, 190-pound Jarvis Jones, missed last year with an injury, but Bartow said "he looks great." Jones has experience, and he can score.

"When you look at what we lost, Jones becomes pretty valuable," Bartow said. "He's better now than I've ever seen him. He can make shots."

So can 6-2, 180-pound junior Marcus Dubose (Mendocino CC/Hartsville, S.C.), whom Bartow expects to make a big contribution right away. Bartow expects junior college transfers to step in quickly, and Dubose should do just that.

"He's got a real uncanny ability to score," Bartow said. "That's what we lost and need. He can score and score big. He scores efficiently and is a very unusual rebounder for a guard -- at both ends."

Expect 6-3, 185-pound freshman Rashawn Rembert (Sickles HS/Tampa, Fla.) to make a perimeter impact, largely because of his ability to shoot from long distance. "We can kick it out to him at 22 feet, and he can make four or five out of 10," Bartow said.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

BACKCOURT: B-

BENCH/DEPTH: B-

FRONTCOURT: C+

INTANGIBLES: B

The Bucs have indeed lost a lot, but the situation is far from dire in Johnson City. Bartow has an interesting cast at his disposal, and if the veterans become more consistent, the newcomers live up to their reviews, and the role players can handle more work, ETSU should be in it.

The arrivals of Dubose and Rembert should help fill in some of the missing production that was lost, while Sollazzo and Cooley will handle the point and even play together. Throw in Jones, and you have the potential for a solid rotation.

If Brown can play up to his potential every night, the Bucs have an all-conference-caliber player on their hands. Hubbard's full-time return is great news, especially if he re-creates the year he had in 2009-10. Ward will handle the rough stuff, and Poderis will be given a chance to play more in the middle. If Wilson and Walton can turn their athletic ability into basketball production, Bartow could put together some interesting combinations up front.

It really is all about March in the Atlantic Sun. Last year, the Bucs weren't able to make the most of the early part of the month, although they did rebound. Don't be surprised if this team is better when it matters this season.

For the most comprehensive previews available on all 335 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2011-12 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857.