“I don’t want to go home anytime soon,” said Bo Hodges, East Tennessee State’s all-conference guard. “Our goal this year is to win a conference championship and go to the (NCAA) tournament, so this is a big milestone for us.”
ETSU (23-8), the tournament’s fourth seed, tips off Saturday at 2:30 p.m with a quarterfinal game against fifth-seeded Chattanooga (12-19).
Should the Bucs beat the Mocs, it could set up a Sunday semifinal matchup with 22nd-ranked Wofford, which hasn’t lost to a SoCon opponent all year. Wofford plays in the quarterfinal round Saturday at noon against VMI.
Even with the possibility of challenging the SoCon’s best just a game away, the Bucs refuse to look ahead. They’ve beaten Chattanooga seven consecutive times, including by 26 and 13 points this season.
“It’s human nature to look ahead, but in reality, you look ahead and you can get knocked off by anybody,” said Bucs all-conference guard Patrick Good. “Anybody can win on any given night.”
ETSU coach Steve Forbes is confident he’s instilled the right attitude in his team to handle the task at hand without worrying about Wofford.
“I think that’s the way they’ve been all year long,” said Forbes, whose teams made the SoCon finals in each of his first three seasons at ETSU. “I don’t think we’ve ever looked ahead. If you do that, you’re going to get beat.”
As boring as it sounds, to a man, Forbes’ players have been saying they’re taking it one game at a time.
“This is where we wanted to be,” all-conference forward Jeromy Rodriguez said. “We just have to get prepared because if you win, you keep going, but if you lose, you go home. We have to focus on Chat right now.”
All of Saturday’s quarterfinals and the first of Sunday’s semifinals will be televised locally on ABC Tri-Cities. The 4 p.m. semifinal would be the ETSU-Wofford game should both win Saturday. The games also will all be on ESPN-Plus.
The second semifinal will only be televised on ESPN-Plus. Monday’s championship is on ESPN at 7 p.m.
The other quarterfinal matchups on Saturday are UNC Greensboro vs. Samford and Furman against Mercer at 8:30 p.m.
IT’S WOFFORD’S TO LOSE
Wofford enters the tournament with all the momentum after winning all 18 of its regular-season SoCon games and working its way into the Top 25 at No. 22.
The Terriers haven’t been to the tournament final in four years and have played like the most motivated team in the league all season.
Three other teams — ETSU, UNC Greensboro and Furman — feel they could win the title as well.
“I feel we’re as good as anybody in the tournament, but it’s Wofford’s tournament to lose right now,” Forbes said. “I wouldn’t say it’s wide open because nobody has beaten them. Some teams have come close. Until somebody does, it’s really not that wide open.”
SOCON IN THE NCAA
Wofford will almost certainly earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament if it doesn’t win the SoCon title on Monday night. Furman also has a pretty good chance at an at-large based on its body of work. ETSU and UNCG likely have to win the SoCon tourney to make the NCAA field.
There has been talk of a possible scenario where ETSU wins the tournament, beating Furman in the final, and the SoCon could possibly get three teams into the Big Dance.
It’s not likely, but to even talk about it as a possibility is amazing considering the league has never gotten two teams in the tournament in one year. It all depends on what happens around the country in other conference tournaments.
“The top four teams in the league went 47-1 against the rest of the league,” Forbes said. “There’s more at stake in this tournament than any of the other (SoCon) ones I’ve been a part of.”
SCOUTING THE MOCS
Chattanooga’s Kevin Easley, a 6-foot-6 forward, was voted the SoCon’s freshman of the year after averaging 14.4 points per game in the regular season.
The Mocs enter the tournament on a three-game losing streak.
This will be the 16th meeting between the Bucs and Mocs in the tournament. Chattanooga leads the series 8-7.
The teams have combined for 18 SoCon tournament titles, 11 for the Mocs and seven for the Bucs. That ranks first and second among current members.