Steve Forbes Has It Made

Both he and an embattled local coach have the same winning percentage. So why is one so unquestioned and the other so criticized?

Marky Billson, sports talk show host in the Tri-Cities

Here’s where you know a coach is secure.

When he or she makes a strategic move that doesn’t pan out and nobody really calls him out on it.

Case in point, ETSU head men’s basketball coach Steve Forbes. The Bucs lose to Wofford last night, 78–76, in overtime. There’s plenty of praise everywhere, from Wofford head coach Mike Young proclaiming ETSU is a team worthy of the NCAA Tournament to the Buccaneers feeling as if the game was nothing more than a stepping stone on the way to a final goal.

But it did prevent the Bucs from winning the Southern Conference regular season championship this season. It seems highly unlikely the Bucs will be able to make up a three game deficit, and really 3 1/2 as the Terriers have swept the Bucs this season, in the six games remaining on their schedule.

Sure, there’s always Asheville. And the prevailing mindset of “there’s always Asheville” shows how meaningless the regular season is in college basketball.

Many pointed to poor free throw shooting for the Bucs loss. ETSU was 8 of 15 while Wofford was 13 of 21 from the stripe.

But what about Forbes keeping Lucas N’Guessan on the bench?

The 7–0 center played only three of a possible 45 minutes last night. He was supposed to be the difference in the game, since he had not yet joined the active ETSU roster when Wofford defeated ETSU on Dec. 1, 79–62.

True, last night in his only minute of play in the first half N’Guessan had two fouls and Mladen Armus played well in his place.

But N’Guessan was also the Bucs’ leading scorer on Saturday in their victory against Chattanooga. While Armus was a consistent contributor throughout the game and his 34 minutes played was not a season high, it was his foul with 1:18 left in overtime that allowed Cameron Jackson to tie the game.

Would Armus have made that foul and prevented a basket if he had been better rested? Or would N’Guessan have made that foul? Who knows?

“Defensively he was standing straight up and down,” Forbes said when asked why N’Guessan didn’t play more by WJHL’s Kenny Hawkins. “You can’t play Cameron Jackson like that. When he came back in the second half I didn’t think [N’Guessan’s] motor was running.”

And as far as ETSU fans and media were concerned, that was that.

If ETSU wins six of their next seven games Steve Forbes will be the first coach in school history to win 100 games in four seasons.

There’s nothing wrong with Forbes’ statement, but there are plenty of coaches who couldn’t have gotten away with it.

“Why didn’t you have N’Guessan motivated for such a big game? How could your big man be up and down like that? Why are you throwing N’Guessan under the bus?”

Had, say, Tennessee women’s basketball coach Holly Warlick tried to make such a statement following a tough loss to the first place team in the conference, those would likely have been the fan and media comments that followed.

“If you spent such time and effort landing the player, why didn’t the player get anytime in the biggest game of the year? Especially after such a good game?”

Both Forbes and Warlick, incidentally, have .731 career winning percentages at ETSU and Tennessee, respectively.

After awhile you’d think people would realize Pat Summitt’s right hand woman is as close to Summitt as they’re ever going to get.

It’s a sign of how differently the Bucs and Lady Vols are treated by their fans and media.

But it’s also a sign Forbes is untouchable.

Perhaps it is the nature of the beast. The Lady Vols are supposed to make the NCAA Tournament and win in it, period.

ETSU? Their season is really three games in March.

Never mind that when the Lady Vols dominated women’s basketball the sport was hardly as competitive as it is now. Or that the same increase in competition can be said for men’s basketball in the Southern Conference.

Perhaps keeping Armus in the game last night is what kept ETSU in the game itself. And thankfully Forbes is mature enough to answer questions about his strategy without becoming defensive.

It goes a long way in winning people over. But does it make for a system where healthy analysis of strategy is often ignored?

Marky Billson hosts a sports talk show in the Tri-Cities, TN market 12–2 p.m. ET weekdays which can be seen live and archived here.

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