Why ETSU-Tusculum is the Game of the Day in the Tri-Cities

Sure, there are the high school tournaments. But a cosmopolitan area champions its major sports entities, which, as a Division I NCAA basketball program, the Buccaneers are.

Marky Billson

It’s my belief that this time of year high school basketball is covered way, way too much in the Tri-Cities.

It’s because of the holiday tournaments. But playing wall-to-wall basketball games of a lower level, with local teams being trounced by high schools you’ve never heard of but are assured by tournament organizers are good, is just not my cup of tea.

They also are poorly run and, from what I’ve found, somewhat dishonest. One year I covered a major local tournament and the drawing card of the tournament was injured, yet no announcement was made lest it affect ticket sales.

Organizers said one local high school basketball tournament was a sellout on Tuesday, but was it? Where is the official attendance count? Who couldn’t see the empty seats in the stands even when local teams played?

What it boiled down to was organizers admitting they didn’t understand even the basic concepts of crowd management when they were quoted as saying they should allow fans with tournament passes in first.”

Ya think? Fans were freezing in the cold for hours to come in.

Instead of an attendance count we always get this announcement, and it happens every year, that the fire marshal showed up to these tournaments.

I’m glad the fire marshal is doing his job. I think he was a bit overzealous when he literally halved the seating capacity of the Mini Dome a decade ago, but that’s as much ETSU’s fault for allowing it to happen and to never make the minimal adjustments needed to make good.

To my knowledge I am the only member of the media in the Tri-Cities to actually get an attendance count of a high school basketball tournament. I asked for it, received it, and then was treated with contempt even though the figure was nearly enough to sell out the building.

But it was for all of the games of the day, not just one. So the actual per game attendance count for most of the games were in the hundreds, not the thousands.

Media interaction with the teams historically have been discouraged. I’ve literally waited outside a high school basketball tournament locker room until the second quarter of the next game to get a quote, and when I finally say “enough is enough” and stick my head inside the locker room to ask for a coach of player to come out, there have been complaints.

The complaint should be the coach trying to duck the media. I thought these tournaments were designed to showcase talent, which is accentuated by the added media attention of a 30-point scorer talking to the press or a coach raving about the player.

So I’m turning my attention to the real game of the day, Tusculum at ETSU.

There was a time when ETSU was afraid to schedule home games in the week after Christmas because of the high school basketball tournaments. No more. Now, the showcase of the area’s hoop talent is rightfully focused on Tusculum at ETSU, and it’s a game that deserves a lot of attention even with the almost certainty of a Buccaneers victory.

Every Division I basketball team plays tune up games, but for some reason this is only the second time since 1957 the Pioneers and Bucs have played on the hardwood. That means only the second time since East Tennessee State was a member of the NCAA.

For almost a half century ETSU disdained playing the smaller colleges of the immediate Tri-Cities area. Oh, there were games against the likes of, say, UVA-Wise, Carson-Newman, and Mars Hill, but Tusculum and Milligan were forgotten as opponents until Murry Bartow became the coach.

Avoiding these local schools for tune-up games wasn’t healthy. For the Pioneers and Buffaloes, it was a bold try against a major Division I team, but also a healthy check the athletic departments wouldn’t otherwise receive and the most exposure the teams would receive all season.

For ETSU, yes, it was a chance to reinforce the program’s “King of the Hill” status locally, but also an opportunity to create exposure in immediate outlying communities of Johnson City.

Tusculum hasn’t beaten East Tennessee State since 1951, or, to put it in perspective, before Johnson City’s Ernie Bowman got his driver’s license. Bowman, now 82, was a star of the mid-’50s Bucs teams that competed in the NAIA Tournament and allowed the program to play at a level in which they would soon join the Ohio Valley Conference. He would later go on to become a utility infielder for the San Francisco Giants.

There is a fun historical note in the Tusculum-ETSU series that the Bucs once played four games during a three year period because of WWII, and all of the games were against Tusculum. In fact, ETSC’s 1944–45 team went 0–2, losing both games to the Pioneers and only scoring 37 points for the season.

I’m betting the Bucs will have that by halftime tonight.

This will be a chance to see Johnson City’s own Dillon Reppart play for ETSU. Unfortunately it’s probably going to be once the game is decided, and he may be the only local player to get on the court. David Crockett’s Patrick Good of ETSU has to sit out a year on a transfer from Appalachian State, and all of Tusculum’s local players; Good’s high school teammate Dustin Day, North Greene’s Ethan Harmon, Greeneville’s Dylan DeBusk, and Bristol, Tennessee’s Connor Greene, have yet to play this year.

Which, come to think of it, is something of a commentary on the area’s high school basketball talent. And why you’re better off watching ETSU-Tusculum tonight.

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