Every year there are debates in March about teams that get snubbed from the NCAA Tournament. Mid-major programs, while considered, often get the brunt of these snubs. Mediocre power conference teams backpedal in, while quality small conference schools who took one bad loss in a conference tournament get left on the couch. East Tennessee State, out of the Southern Conference, will give the committee plenty to think about on Selection Sunday.
East Tennessee State Is At-Large Worthy
East Tennessee State currently sits at 18-3 and 7-1 in league play. Steve Forbes’ team is currently ranked 42nd in the NET. The Buccaneers also carry rankings of 41 in ESPN’s BPI, 57 in KenPom, and 27 in Strength of Record. Furthermore, they are 2-1 in Quadrant One games. Their biggest win of the season came in a drubbing of LSU on the road. That is still the Tigers’ only home loss this season. The Bucs also played Kansas close in a 12 point loss.
East Tennessee State also owns victories over current mid-major conference leaders Winthrop and Little Rock. Their worst loss was a Quadrant Three defeat on the road against North Dakota State. While the rankings are not fond of the Bison, they are in the thick of the Summit League title race. The Buccaneers currently hold a similar, if not better, profile than last year’s Wofford team, who would have safely landed inside the bubble. Their non-conference win over LSU is better, while they carry one more conference loss than the Terriers from last season.
East Tennessee State is comparing well to fellow bubble teams from power conferences. The Buccaneers carry a higher NET ranking than Minnesota, Indiana, and NC State. It is even higher than fellow mid-major Northern Iowa, whom many consider being at-large worthy as well. They hold a higher BPI ranking than Creighton and Wichita State, teams who are considered safely in at this point in the season. Their KenPom rating is higher than Memphis and Virginia Tech.
While some may discredit metrics, they do appear on the team sheets for the selection committee. In other words, the numbers matter even if you do not think so. Assuming the Bucs can continue their winning ways the rest of the way, their numbers will only continue to climb in all of these ratings.
Speaking of numbers, East Tennessee State has defensive metrics that can hold firm in March. The Buccaneers force their opponents to turn the ball over on 22.5 percent of their possessions. That includes stealing the ball on 11.8 of their opponents’ possessions.
They also shoot an efficient 55.1 percent from inside the arc, 13th best in the nation. Perhaps their performance on both ends of the court comes from their experience. The average years of experience on the team are 2.17, 36th oldest in the country.
The bottom line is that the Buccaneers have players who will not be scared of the moment. They will wear you down defensively while not wasting possessions on the offensive side of the ball. Over 100 possessions, they are winning games by an average of 12.5 points. In short, their formula leads to total domination more often than not.
Since you should expect to see the Buccaneers playing in March, you should get accustomed to some of their key pieces. This team has depth, with eight players averaging 19 or more minutes per game.
Bo Hodges is the heart and soul of this team. He is their leading scorer, averaging 13.5 points per game. He also averages 5.7 rebounds per game. Hodges was a third-team All-Southern Conference member last season and is poised to finish higher this year. As he goes, so do the Bucs.
Jeromy Rodriguez owns the paint for East Tennessee State. The Dominican native averages 10.7 points per game while pulling down 7.9 rebounds per game. He is a rebounding machine, having led the Southern Conference last year and finishing eighth nationally. He tested the NBA waters last year before returning. Fans in Johnson City are glad he did.
Tray Boyd III is the sixth man for this team. He has not started a single game, yet averages 13 points per game. He is also their sharpshooter, shooting 37.9 percent from behind the arc and 85 percent from the free-throw line. Boyd is someone who can be relied on when the game is on the line.
It is never easy to rely on help from other teams, but that is part of what East Tennessee State will need. For the second season in a row, the Southern Conference is strong. Furman and UNC-Greensboro sit inside the top 100 of all the rating systems. Western Carolina and Wofford sit inside the top 150. Those rankings are important because it allows the Buccaneers to carry Quadrant One and Two wins if their conference foes can stay relevant.
In return, East Tennessee State knows they have a target on their back. Furman and UNC-Greensboro feel like they have a chance at an at-large bid as well. That is contingent on beating the Bucs. For those who are advocates of a two-bid Southern Conference, East Tennessee State will need to play a role. The best way to this path is for the Buccaneers to win out until the conference tournament championship and being upset in that game.
East Tennessee State Outlook
Given everything laid out above, the Buccaneers should have no problem dancing this year. That is contingent on the team winning out, or at least not dropping more than one game to the top half of the league. Finishing at 30-4 or 29-5 combined with the expected rise in the ratings should be enough for an at-large bid. Put East Tennessee State on your radar now.