Murry Bartow isn’t sure the last time he had so few buttons to push as a coach.
In his 10th season at East Tennessee State, Bartow is finishing out November with just eight scholarship players in uniform. And a couple of them are hurt.
The Bucs (1-3) host Milligan College tonight.
Aside from the dismissal of Sheldon Cooley and Marcus Dubose, who had been on indefinite suspension the last two weeks while facing drug charges, Jarvis Jones remains academically ineligible. He’ll hopefully be back in good standing for the Dec. 14 game at Mississippi.
The team’s fourth senior, Lukas Poderis, tore an Achilles tendon in a preseason scrimmage and is redshirting.
Complicating matters this week, junior forward Kinard Gadsden-Gilliard is hobbling on a tender ankle, and freshman point guard Petey McClain is suffering from tendonitis in his right knee.
Gadsden-Gilliard may not play against Milligan tonight.
“It’s nothing serious,” said Bartow, “but he hurt it about two and a half weeks ago and it just hasn’t healed. He may play tomorrow, but it’s very doubtful right now. He needs some rest.”
The junior-college transfer has played in all four games, starting one, and is averaging 5.5 points and 2.5 rebounds. He’s second on the team in assists, with seven.
McClain, meanwhile, has been dealing with pain in his knee since back in the summer and said Wednesday that “it’s just something I gotta play through.” He has started all four games and is the Bucs’ leading assist man, with 15.
Cooley figured to be the primary backup at point guard, but that’s no longer an option.
“It’s a big concern with Petey’s health because we have only one true point guard, and he’s it,” said Bartow. “He’s going to play 39, 40 minutes a game. And Kinard is really our backup at that position now.”
The math has left Bartow and his staff looking for less taxing ways to practice. Of course, this is a team that needs to be taxed.
“We’ve had to shorten things, and that puts us in a very tough situation,” said Bartow. “We have a team full of very young players and need to practice as much as we can to work things out. It’s very dicey with the numbers being what they are.
“If you practice too long, you risk getting someone else injured or just wearing people out. We’ve had a lot less contact, a lot of 5 on 0 stuff, just dry runs for things that we would normally be playing out.”
The season has been one long struggle for points so far.
The Bucs are coming off a 54-38 loss at Georgia last Friday – their lowest point production in 65 years. They are averaging 55.2 on 37 percent shooting.
Redshirt freshman Lester Wilson is the only player averaging in double figures, at 17.5, and he’s made 12 of 26 (46.2 percent) from 3-point range. The rest of the team has a total of 10 3-pointers.
Hunter Harris is averaging 7.3 points and leads the Bucs in rebounding (6.0).
“I like what Lester has been doing, and Hunter can score if we get him the ball in the right spots,” said Bartow. “From there it’s a low ceiling with the other guys. We have guys who can get you six, eight, 10 points, but usually not much more. When Jarvis comes back we’ll have another guard who can shoot, and he’s been playing very well in practice.”
Of course, much of what the Bucs do offensively will run through McClain, the youngster from Mobile, Ala. While he’s dealing with knee trouble, he’s having to figure out how to be a leader.
“I want to be aggressive when I can, get to the basket and make plays for the team,” said McClain. “It’s just a different environment with all the guys missing. I’m kind of shocked that I’m the only point we have now.”
What is his coach’s advice on how McClain should go about his duties?
“Number one, don’t foul. You gotta play 40 minutes, or close to it,” said Bartow. “You need to limit mistakes as much as you can and run the team. Be a vocal leader and take control; it’s kind of your team now. Try to get us eight, 9, 10 assists and keep the turnovers low.
“It’s a lot to ask of a true freshman.”
McClain is one three true freshmen who will be thrust into the fray earlier than expected. There’s also Wilson, the redshirt freshman, and sophomores John Walton and Rashawn Rembert. Even the juniors were playing junior-college ball last season.
“The good news,” said Bartow, “is when we get to January and February, these guys will have a ton of minutes under their belts.”