After the East Tennessee State men’s basketball team won the Southern Conference tournament championship Monday night, it erased any questions about whether the Bucs would be part of the NCAA Tournament. They were on the bubble — some saying they would be in — but history wasn’t on their side. No SoCon team has ever earned an at-large bid.
All of that talk is moot now and Forbes couldn’t be happier. While his players celebrated on the court at Harrah’s Cherokee Center, sheer joy on their faces, the ETSU coach seemed more relieved than anything else.
“I’ve been a wreck for almost three weeks now,” Forbes said. “Maybe I don’t show it, but on the inside, I’m a mess because there’s so much pressure when you get to that conversation.
“I quit even thinking about it. I didn’t let them think about it. We didn’t even talk about it.”
As much as Forbes didn’t want to think about possibly having to rely on an at-large bid that might not come, the constant reminders just added to the pressure.
“You can’t help as a coach not to think about it a little bit,” he said. “People are asking you the question all the time about it. I didn’t want to go through a week of sitting there and listening to the pundits talk about if we should be in or if we should be out.”
So now instead of finding out if they’ll be in the field on Selection Sunday, the Bucs will learn their opponent and when and where the game will be played.
“I feel a hell of a lot better right now,” Forbes said.
ETSU is going to the NCAA Tournament for the 11th time thanks to a dominant run through the SoCon tournament that included three convincing victories. A 72-58 win over defending champion Wofford in the final punched the postseason ticket.
Isaiah Tisdale was the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player after scoring 24 points in the championship game.
Afterward, Forbes pointed to four specific points in the season that put his team in position to roll through the tournament:
1. The 75-63 loss at Kansas
“I don’t believe in moral victories, but when we went to Kansas and we were down five with four (minutes) to go, we were right there,” he said. “I’ve been there a lot of times and just got whipped with really good teams, so I knew then we had a chance. We hadn’t done it yet.”
2. The 74-63 win at LSU
“Then we went to LSU and popped ’em,” Forbes said. “We had them down 23 in the second half and beat them double digits. So I knew we had a chance.”
3. Beating UNC Greensboro on the road after losing badly at Furman — and doing it without an injured Jeromy Rodriguez
“When Jeromy got hurt at Furman, you know tough loss, the sky was falling in Johnson City,” Forbes said. “We came right back and beat Greensboro on the road. We kind of exorcised a demon. We hadn’t won there in a while and then I knew we’d be OK.”
4. Putting Tray Boyd III and Daivien Williamson into the starting lineup after a surprising home loss to Mercer
“We made a lineup change,” Forbes said. “We got a little bit better on offense and we haven’t lost since.”
ETSU (30-4) enters the NCAA Tournament as just the fourth Southern Conference team with 30 wins in a season, joining North Carolina, North Carolina State and Wofford.
“You have to dream it to believe it,” Tisdale said. “That’s what got us here.”