The East Tennessee State University Buccaneers are not unlike many other mid-to-smaller-sized Division-I programs that litter the college basketball landscape. While these schools can rarely make serious overtures to even the local blue-chippers, they have historically gotten by on bringing in several local second-tier players. Not only do many of these programs lack the financial support of a large institution or the backing of a television contract, but they are also usually hindered by their remote, backwoods locales.
Take Johnson City, Tenn., for example. The quaint Blue Ridge Mountain settlement that is home to ETSU is a far cry from the hustle and bustle of its metropolitan brethren to the west in Memphis, Nashville or even Knoxville. Suddenly, however, both their men’s and women’s programs are trying to make national noise.
“It’s a big change, it’s different. It’s still different for me now moving from the city to the mountains and my time is almost over,” recalls Bluff City native and men’s team senior guard Courtney Pigram. An admitted childhood Tiger fan who verbally committed to Louisville, Pigram was forced to ultimately take his game across the state. “I didn’t want to go to Memphis; I wanted to play against Memphis.”
For a big city recruit, the pace (or lack thereof) of the mountain lifestyle could easily be a deterrent. For others, however, it adds to the college experience.
“I knew from the beginning, I wanted to go away from home and do something different,” Lady Buc freshmen and NYC-product Natasha Dixon excitedly mentioned. The uber-quick point guard spurned several big national programs for the chance to play in relative obscurity. “Every morning it’s cold, but I love it here, it’s great!”
The Brooklyn native comes to ETSU as one of the most heralded recruits in the program’s history. Verbally committed to Georgia Tech, then later assumed to be headed to UCLA, the 5-4 Dixon flipped the switch on everyone the day she decided to check out the Atlantic Sun school.
“I didn’t want to be a part of something that was already established. East Tennessee won their conference, and now I want to contribute to us going to back this year,” stated Dixon. “I want to be a part of something that is going to grow.”
The fact that the 22-year-old Pigram is even back for his senior year was largely in question this past spring. The 6-1 195-pound combo guard, who has already topped the 1450-point career plateau, experienced some success at the NBA Pre-Draft Camps, but still saw some room for improvement in the point-guard department. With nothing guaranteed to Pigram, he decided to rely on the advice of family.
“I had time to think about it, and I wanted to come back to school. My mom basically made me come back to school and get ready for next year.”
Pigram has been many things to the Head Coach Murry Bartow’s squad during his three-plus years on campus. His role changed during his career, but his production and importance to the team’s success have not. The A-Sun Player of the Year as a sophomore, Pigram has been given more leadership responsibility in past two years, minimizing some of his scoring opportunities. For one night, however, his full skill-set was on display, when he put up an improbable 29 point, 18 assists, 8 rebounds, and 4 steals line on Mercer.
Pigram and his teammates also have some unfinished business to attend to, this year. Like a lion with a thorn in its paw, the Belmont University Bruins are the Bucs’ rosy barb. Pigram has seen every A-Sun tourney bid go to Belmont, making the Big Dance, the one thing missing on the coach-voted, preseason Player of the Year’s resume.
“It (last year’s conference tourney loss to Belmont) was a heartbreaker for us and that game is still in my mind,” remembered Pigram. “Hopefully this year, we can take it on home. I got one more year to get to that Dance.”
The diminutive Dixon, on the other hand, has much still to prove to the Buc faithful. Fear not, though, her prodigious prep credentials (not to mention her family’s background in the music and sports industry) will surely have her primed for pressure situations from the very first tip of her career. The Lady Mocs are coming off an impressive 21-win year and a bid to the NCAA Tournament and Dixon looks to contribute, immediately.
“Just to be, playing college for the first year, it’s something that I have been waiting to do,” said Dixon. “I’m coming in, I’m going to score, I’m going to shoot, anything they need me to do; anything to win.”
In just their first few weeks on campus this fall, Dixon and Pigram have quickly become inseparable, often seen heisting jumpers or working on skills in a dull-lit corner of the school’s Mini-Dome.
“I met him last year on my visit, and then when I got here, me and him are always together, shooting. In between classes, we shoot. We come in at night and shoot,” gratefully exudes the younger Dixon. “He watches me play pick-up and after, I go straight to him and he tells me what to fix. I am going to take everything he knows and put it to use.”
Both Buccaneer teams have extremely lengthy and uphill climbs in preparation for this spring’s NCAA Tournament, but both have to like their chances. Pigram will again be graced with the wing-man services of fellow senior, Kevin Tiggs. Last year, the tandem topped the 30-point, 9-rebound mark, potent production from a backcourt pairing. With the Bucs again forced to accept the “Belmont chaser” role, Bartow’s men’s program will be again relying heavily on the seniors, as they try to get that elusive ticket punched.
Despite the graduation of Michelle DeVault, the Lady Bucs should be loaded, too. Junior forwards, Latisha Belcher and Siarre Evans return as two of the team’s top scorers and rebounders from a year ago. The combination will provide a perfect frontcourt duet which should allow Dixon the ability to “conduct the orchestra” from the point guard position. If the first-year guard can provide the spark of energy and production, Head Coach Karen Kemp’s team should be in good shape to repeat their dominance of a year ago.
Just ask the new kid on the block.
“Everyone here is on the same page and we all know what we are here for.”