Optimism runs high for ETSU

By Allen LaMountain

   Returning four starters and with an infusion of some potentially great talent in its freshman class, the East Tennessee State Buccaneers are taking aim at a third straight Southern Conference North Division title.
   In fact, the Bucs are shooting for a SoCon title, and with it, an invitation to the NCAA tournament as well.
   "I don't think polls and predictions mean much right now," said Bucs head coach Ed DeChellis at the ETSU basketball media day on Wednesday at Brooks Gym. "It's on us, we have to get stuff done. We want to get to the NCAA tournament and we are working hard towards that goal. I think the freshmen we have here bring good chemistry and will fit in very well. They all come from winning (prep) basketball programs."
   The biggest obstacle to Bucs success could be it's youth. ETSU will have just three seniors on it's squad, and the biggest impact could be felt in the backcourt where Dimeco Childress' 17 points-per-game and mostly, his experience, will be sorely missed.
   "Meek was a guy we counted on last year to make the tough shot," said DeChellis. "Whether a tie game or us down he wasn't shy about taking it on his shoulders. I don't know if we will get any one guy to replace his numbers or if it will be by committee."
   Sophomore Sam Oatman and freshman Tim Smith (Newport News, Va. Hillgrave Military Academy) are the top candidates for the position, but DeChellis doesn't think their inexperience is going to hurt the team, saying: "I think we have some capable guys there. What we lack is experience, and playing time, which is very important. But Sam Oatman looks fully recovered from his knee surgery and has had a good fall. He has done well in conditioning and is trying to be a leader.
   "Tim Smith hasn't played at this level, but he's very talented and could step in and give us some help."
   The frontcourt is loaded with skill and experience with pre-season All-SoCon players Jared Fields and Zakee Wadood who along with Tiras Wade, Isaac Potter and Shannon Hufstetler give the Bucs solid rebounding and scoring.
   "We fell short last season, and I felt like a lot of it was on me," said Wadood, the SoCon's leading rebounder who averaged 9.2 boards-per-game. "I felt that if I could have made one more shot or something, things might have been different, but we don't want to look back. We want to be able to get better in the late stages of the season and we definitely want to get back there (SoCon tournament) and prove ourselves."
   An impressive class of freshmen including 6-9 forward Brad Nuckles (Council Va. Council High) along with Smith will be looking to get some minutes and along with those two the Bucs also count Howard Bridgers (6-6, 260, Wilson, N.C., Beddingfield H.S.), and Ben Rhoda (6-4, 195, Dayton, Ohio Centerville H.S.) as top recruits.
   Nuckles is strong and a gifted shooter from three-point range and hopes to grab some minutes, saying: "I don't want to just sit. I'm here and getting better day in day out, but it's a learning experience as well."
   DeChellis knows Nuckles can score but says his toughest transition will be, "Learning at the defensive end of the floor. Brad is a tremendous shooter, he puts the ball in the basket, which is what you want to do. But the physical aspect of the game is much different than at the prep level."
   Smith -- a point guard -- went to the same high school as NBA star Allen Iverson and is a potentially great talent. Smith looks forward to blending his ball-handling skills with his teammates on the floor for the Bucs, saying: "This is an up and down (the floor) team, and that fits in with how I like to play. We have a lot of guys here who can run the floor and finish the break. I think I will fit in well here."
   The Bucs have had back-to-back 18-10 season's and their 24 SoCon victories are the most over the last two season's by any squad. All that remains now is for the team to build on its success and get past the SoCon tournament this time around and perhaps achieve that elusive NCAA bid will be within reach.