Team preview: East Tennessee State

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

East Tennessee State lost about half of its scoring output from last year, much of it coming from dynamic point guard Tim Smith, who finished his career as the school's all-time leading scorer. So what is Murry Bartow desperately hoping for as his team enters the new season? Defense.

Like the rest of the conference, the Bucs didn't have much trouble putting the ball in the basket last year; they led the NCAA in scoring average for most of the season.

But even though they piled up the points, the Bucs managed only a fifth-place finish in the A-Sun before blowing a 17-point second half lead against Gardner-Webb on their homecourt in the conference tournament. Tim Jennings tipped in a lob pass in the closing seconds to bring ETSU's season to a disappointing end.

So while it might seem like Bartow's top priority should be filling the scoring void Smith leaves behind, he's actually still trying to replace a pair of players who left two years ago.

Zakee Wadood and Gerald Fields dominated in the paint for the Bucs, leading ETSU to a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances and within seconds of knocking off Wake Forest and Cincinnati once they got there. The pair graduated after the 2003-04 season, and Bartow said their toughness has yet to be replaced.

"We were 29-6 and went to the NCAA Tournament their senior year," he said. "We won a lot of close ballgames and nine times out of 10, it was one of those two who made a key defensive stop to preserve a win.

"Take Gerald and Zakee off, and we've struggled. We've got to get better defensively."

That contention is backed up by cold, hard stats. During the 2003-04 season, the Bucs gave up just 69.4 points per contest and went 9-4 in games decided by less than six points.

Last season, ETSU's opponents scored 77.8 points per game and the Bucs went 2-7 in games decided by six points or less. They also dropped all three games that went into overtime.

"We haven't been very tough," Bartow said. "We need to get our toughness back."

So while the team's identity will be much different with Smith gone, developing some grit will be the key to the Bucs regaining their swagger.