Defense preseason concern for ETSU

  JOHNSON CITY--At this point, anybody in the East Tennessee State locker room will tell you the Buccaneers are not where they want to be.
  With expectations running high on campus, and across the country, several returning members of the Associated Press' 39th-ranked squad admitted needing help defensively for another successful campaign.
  The defensive problems should be the team's focus in its exhibition battle against VASDA USA in Saturday's 4 p.m. exhibition at Brooks Gymnasium.
  "We've shown a lot of progress, but we're a long ways away from being where we want to be at," said junior guard Ben Rhoda. "We've been focusing on our defense right now. It doesn't matter who we play, we've got to be pretty effective, know our positions and communicate."
  Both Jerald Fields and Zakee Wadood carried the squad defensively last season, with big numbers on the boards (a combined 14.5 per game) and in other categories such as steals (148 combined), blocks (122 combined) and forced turnovers.
  They also take with them 28 points of offense.
  Having to replace the two starters will not be easy for the Bucs, but the team expects to have more quality depth than in previous years on the offensive side of the ball.
  Oh yeah, that Smith kid is back.
  Standout point guard Tim Smith received a lot of hype at the end of last season after the Bucs' NCAA Tournament loss to Cincinnati. The junior has improved his outside shot and will be the key focus of this year's team.
  "We just got to take it day by day and not look at the expectations," Smith said before the team's practice on Thursday. "We've got to go out there and do what we can do the best and not try to live up to last year."
  "The returning guys have been focused, and we can't wait to get it going," he said. "It's been a long off-season."
  Along with Smith, Rhoda and senior guard/forward James Anthony will need to contribute more to the team's offense this season.
  Both are dangerous threats from the outside, and will be joined at their positions by sophomores Travis Strong and Aaron Scott, who both stepped up late in the season last year.
  "We're looking good, especially offensively," Anthony said. "We've still got some stuff (to work on), on the defensive end. We'll be good once we get the defense down."
  "We (are not going to) try to overanalyze the exhibition game or anything, but we're going to play hard defense," he said.
  The defending, back-to-back Southern Conference champions also welcome four newcomers to this year's squad, two of which may be expected to contribute a significant amount of time on the floor Saturday.
  Carrying the load inside the paint at this point alongside returning 6-9 junior Brad Nuckles, will be 6-7 junior forward Dillion Sneed, who played at Colby Community College last season.
  Sneed originally planned on continuing his career at Nebraska, but wound up at ETSU. Sneed averaged six points and six boards at Colby and is expected to help with the team's defensive game.
  The other junior transfer is Chris Mitchell, a 6-6 forward who hails from Chicago, Ill., like Sneed.
  Mitchell, a first-team JuCo All-American last season, is a solid offensive threat having averaged 17 points and 10.5 boards at Highland Community College, but he hasn't been too spectacular on the defensive side of the ball in early practices.
  "Dillion has been stepping up real good, and Brad, he's been looking good," said Anthony. "I expect Chris to come along and help us out a lot down the road."
  Promising freshman Andrew Reed and injured 6-8 frosh Greg Surmacz also join the squad.
  Smith believes Saturday's game will give the team a better look at where the new guys are before next week's season opener against UVA-Wise.
  "There's a lot of work to be done, and it's hard to say (where the new guys are at) because it's practice," Smith said. "You've got to wait until you play to see. We'll see how the exhibition game goes along to see where the new guys are at."
  Senior guards Sam Oatman and Michael Tolliver will likely see a lot of time in Saturday's exhibition; Oatman as a strong feeding guard and Tolliver for his full-court defensive presence.