Normally I do a preview of the team that Kentucky is playing and try to act like I know what I’m talking about. Well, today we are going to things a little differently. On St. Patrick’s Day night I sat down and spoke with East Tennessee State Play-by-Play man, Jay Santos. Santos is in his eighth season with the Buccaneers.
ETSU enters the NCAA Tournament with a 20-14 overall record, they were 13-7 in Atlantic Sun play, but they have won six strait and nine of 11. ESPN Bracket Nerd, Joe Lunardi, calls them the best of the five No. 16 seeds.
Murray Bartow, the son of coaching legend Gene Bartow, is in his seventh season with the Bucs. In those seven seasons, he has compiled a 241-168 record and this is his third trip to the NCAA Tournament. They also made the dance in 2004, and in 2009 they gave Pittsburgh a scare in the first round.
They are led by Tommy Hubbard, a 6-4, 210-pound senior, who despite his size bangs underneath. He leads the team in scoring and rebounding with 14.1 and 8.3, respectively. Guards Micah Williams (12.5 ppg) and Justin Tubbs (12.0 ppg) also average double figures for the Bucs.
The streets of New Orleans were loud as everyone around Santos was celebrating by drinking some green beer, but we fought through it. Below is the interview.
nickev: You enter the NCAA tournament hot, winning six strait and nine of your last 11 ball games. What has been the difference of late?
Jay Santos: There are a couple of differences. The first is bench play. Simply put, the bench struggled the first half of season. Too often during the first three-quarters of the season the starters did all of the scoring. Coach Bartow seems to finally have his rotation down. During the last 12 games he has stuck with an eight man rotation and guys like Adam Sollazzo, J.C. Ward, and Sheldon Cooley are really starting to contribute off the bench. So the bench is the big thing, but they have also picked it up defensively. In our 20 wins we have allowed 60 points per game. In our losses we are giving up 75 points.
nickev: The Atlantic Sun Tournament was an interesting one. You entered as the 5-seed, yet the highest seed you beat to win the championship was No. 4 Campbell in the first round. You then beat No. 8 Kennesaw State in the semis before defeating No. 6 Mercer, a team that beat you twice in the regular season, in the finals. Have you ever been a part of a tournament with so many upsets? What did you do differently to get the win against Mercer when it mattered most?
Jay Santos: No, I haven’t. But, it wasn’t just the tournament. The regular season was quite odd, as well. Sure, we were the 5th seed in the tournament, but there was a four-way tie for first and we were only one game out. In the past the Atlantic Sun has had a team separate and run away with everything. This year there was no dominant team. The tournament was just so interesting the way it all broke down and then in the finals we played Mercer, a team that handed it to us the previous two games. The outcome was different the third time because we held Mercer’s seniors down. They are a senior-laden team, but they aren’t too deep. We were able to get their guys into foul trouble. We also got off to a quick start. Our wings hit some threes and we grabbed an early lead, which was huge because in the first two games we trailed the entire 40 minutes. We also held them under 70 points. They put up huge scoring outputs in both our losses in the regular season, scoring 83 and 82 points.
nickev: This is the Buccaneers second consecutive trip to the Big Dance. Last year you were also No. 16 and gave Pittsburgh quite a scare, trailing by three with under three minutes to go before losing 72-62. Did Murray Bartow employ any type of gimmick strategy to hang with the heavily favored Panthers, or did they play them straight up?
Jay Santos: Last year’s ETSU team was totally different than this one. They thrived in full-court and forced a lot of turnovers. Pitt wasn’t a very good three-point shooting team but they had guys like Sam Young who could seemingly get to rim to the rim whenever they wanted. A lot of teams played them by packing it in and forcing them to shoot three’s. We didn’t change anything against them. We played four guards, pressed full-court and forced them into turnovers. In that game we forced Pitt into 18 turnovers while only turning it over nine times ourselves. We also hit some big shots which kept us in the game. Bartow is not a big gimmick guy. He won’t box-and-one you or run a triangle-and-two. So, no they really didn’t do anything like that to Pittsburgh last year.
nickev: Try to explain what this ETSU squad is all about.
Jay Santos: Murray Bartow’s squads have always been about forcing turnovers, getting into transition and scoring. This year has been a rarity because they have struggled to score. Truth be told, this team has gone through a lot of adversity. Prior to the season, 6-10 junior Seth Coy died in a one-car accident. Then we lost our best returning player Mike Smith to a medical redshirt after just four games. It took a long time for someone to step up. At one point in the season, no one would take the big shot. It’s been an odd run and kind of an all-out up-and-down year. They have no margin for error. All season long they have had to play a flawless games to compete, that is especially true against Kentucky. Heck, in our win at Arkansas we hit the most threes we’ve hit all season, we out-rebounded them and forced them into more turnovers. It was kind of a perfect storm.
nickev: Despite a lack of size, the Bucanneers have outrebounded their opponents this season. Tommy Hubbard, at just 6’4″, leads the team in rebounding with 8.3 per game. How have they had so such success on the glass despite a disadvantage size-wise?
Jay Santos: They beefed up the schedule this season and played teams with size. They played at Louisville, at Tennessee and then won at Arkansas. They scheduled four NCAA tournament teams from a year ago. They also try to force quick outside shots because they can’t matchup with a lot of teams underneath. It is going to be a really tough match-up against Kentucky underneath. If the ETSU defense can force UK into jump shots, they will have opportunities to chase balls down.
nickev: Not only is Hubbard a good rebounder, he is also a great scorer underneath. What does he do that makes him so effective around the basket?
Jay Santos: His days of boxing and he played middle linebacker in high school. He has that football mentality. Coming out of high school he had more offers in football than he had in basketball. He is wired to play football, but he has a love for the game of basketball. He is by far our best defender and no one plays harder than he does. I know it sounds cliche but he plays every second of every play and leaves it all on the line. During broadcasts I often refer to him as “Tommy Hustle” because he simply out-hustles everyone. In big games he often goes the distance, too. He played all 40 minutes in our win over Arkansas and in the A-Sun Championship Game.
nickev: One of Kentucky’s weaknesses, especially early on, has been defending the three-point shot. Micah Williams and Justin Tubbs are decent threats from deep, but overall the Bucs are not what you would consider a great perimeter shooting team. They have only connected on 173 threes on the season and are shooting just 31-percent. In contrast, so-called analysts are calling the three-point shot Kentucky’s achilles heel and they have knocked down 203 while shooting 34-percent. Do you expect them to rely on the three more against the Wildcats or to continue to look for scoring opportunities in the 2-point area?
Jay Santos: That would be the million dollar question if you had to break down this game. Like you mentioned, ETSU really only has two guys who can stand out there and shoot it. In past seasons they have had those guys, this year they don’t. I expect them to continue to try and get into that 15-foot range. Question is can they get there? I don’t know. But, I know Bartow would like for his team to stay around 12 to 13 three-point attempts in this one.
nickev: Recently, the majority of teams have implemented some variation of the 2-3 zone against the Wildcats. Do you expect Bartow to stick to this strategy?
Jay Santos: On defense they might play some 1-1-3 against kentucky. The 1-1-3 is very similar to the 2-3, but the opposite guard goes out and pressures. They will show full court in spurts, because that is what they do, but don’t look for them to press against UK. The ‘Cats are just too deep and to be honest the press has actually hurt them at times throughout the season.
nickev: What do the Bucanneers have to do to hang with the Wildcats and have a chance at the end, much like they did last year against Pitt?
Jay Santos: To stay with the ‘Cats, it will have to be similar to what happened against Pitt. Number one, they can’t get killed on glass. They will try to force UK into jumpshots, but when Kentucky gets the ball deep they can’t allow them offensive putbacks and extra positions. Just like last year against Pitt, the turnover margin will also have to again be in ETSU’s favor. Both, UK and ETSU are not afraid to give the ball up, so that could be something that keeps the Bucs in the game. They also need to make their 12 to 13 three-point attempts count. Last, they will need a little luck on their side.
nickev: Despite all of the adversity that your team has gone through this season, you still find yourself in the NCAA Tournament for the second strait season. Congratulations on that and good luck tomorrow. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your hectic schedule to do this.