JOHNSON CITY - East Tennessee State men's basketball coach Murry Bartow isn't sure how sharp his team will be after a 10-day layoff, but he knows the consequences of a slow start tonight at Clemson.
The Bucs (24-9) take on the Atlantic Coast Conference's Tigers (21-10) in the first round of the 70th annual National Invitation Tournament at Littlejohn Coliseum. Tipoff is 6 p.m..
"It's a real concern," Bartow said Tuesday of the emotionally draining gap since a 92-67 loss to Belmont in the Atlantic Sun Conference final on March 3. "The first five, six, seven minutes, if we're not sharp, the game could be over. Clemson has so many athletes, and they put such heat on you with their press, we really need to be at our best.
"I was talking to Houston Fancher over at Appalachian State, and he said they came out slow when they played there earlier this year and were down 25 at half."
Tonight's game marks only the second appearance in the NIT by ETSU, coming 24 years after a 79-74 loss at Vanderbilt. A win would give the Bucs 25 in a season for only the fifth time in school history and send them into a second-round matchup against the winner of Appalachian State and Mississippi.
The players have had plenty of time to recharge mentally since the blowout against Belmont.
"I think everybody feels real good, knowing we're still in postseason play," said Eryk Thomas, ETSU's senior forward. "It was tough at first, but we've been practicing hard, and everything has seemed the same this week.
"We just want to win and keep playing."
The Bucs are 0-6 all-time against Clemson but have been competitive there twice in the last three years. They took the Tigers to overtime in 2003 before falling 100-86, and last season were beaten 80-72.
Thomas was a newcomer at ETSU for the latter, having transferred in from a California junior college. The experience made a lasting impression.
"I just remember being in awe - ACC school, big players, big arena," said Thomas, who had three points and five rebounds that night. "Now I'm a year older, and I think I'm ready to compete better against them."
There's always plenty of speculation about the mind-set of power conference teams in the NIT. Many are bitterly disappointed to have missed out on the NCAA tournament.
Clemson could certainly fall into that category after starting the year 17-0, only to lose 10 of its last 14 games.
"They've lost a lot of games over the last part of the season," Bartow said, "but those were against the Dukes and North Carolinas. A lot of people lose to those teams.
"I don't think they're going to fear us."
Clemson is seeded No. 1 in the South bracket, while ETSU is No. 8.
Bartow, whose team has won 16 of its past 18 games, figures it can't hurt to have seen the Tigers up close and personal just a year ago.
"It's useful because their perimeter guys are the same," he said, "but their big guys are different. We know they'll press us, they have great runners and are good on the glass. I think they're the most athletically talented team we will have played.
"It would be a statement if we win, and I think we're capable of that," Bartow added. "But it'll be an incredibly hard game."
All five Clemson starters score in double figures, led by sophomore forward K.C. Rivers at 13.2 points per game. Junior guard Cliff Hammonds scored a team- high 21 points against the Bucs last season.
ETSU is led by A-Sun Player of the Year Courtney Pigram, who averages 17.8 ppg. He scored 18 in the last meeting with the Tigers.
Brad Nuckles (11.2 ppg) and Mike Smith (11.2 ppg) also average in double figures for the Bucs.
NOTES: This will be Bartow's third trip to the NIT as a head coach. His first team at Alabama-Birmingham, in 1997, lost at Texas Christian in the first round. The next year the Blazers won at Missouri, then lost at Minnesota. Bartow was also on his father Gene's staff at UAB in 1993 when the Blazers finished third in the NIT. They defeated Clemson 65-64 in the second round. ... Clemson is 11-13 all-time in the NIT and has played in the tournament more than any other ACC school. ... The Tigers are 13-4 at home this season, with losses to North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and Duke. ETSU hasn't lost two straight games since NCAA tournament teams Tennessee and Belmont turned the trick on Dec. 30 and Jan. 2. ... ESPNU will televise tonight's game, with Rich Waltz and Larry Conley calling the action.