Men's Basketball: Shay gets first win as ETSU's head coach

By Mike Trueblood
For The Register-Mail
East Tennessee State University men's basketball coach Jason Shay, a 1991 Galesburg High School grad, observes action during last week’s Gulf Coast Showcase at Hertz Arena in Estero, Fla. [KEVIN BIRES/For ETSU Athletics]

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. —  Pandemic or no pandemic, Galesburg's Jason Shay couldn't pass up the opportunity to become an NCAA Division I head basketball coach last May when he took over the East Tennessee State men's program.

Shay, a former Galesburg Silver Streaks and Iowa Hawkeyes player, capped a long apprenticeship as a DI assistant coach when he was hired to replace Steve Forbes, who had departed for Wake Forest.

As everyone knows, there could have been an easier year to make that career jump than 2020.

"It was a challenge," said Shay, whose team won its first game of the season last Friday at the Gulf Coast Showcase. 

"We try to stay COVID-free every day, We test everyone three times a week and I cross my fingers every time we test,"  he said. 

"We've been shut down twice — once on Sept. 1 and once in mid-October for 14 days each time."

Staying healthy in these uncertain times only adds to the challenge Shay would have faced no matter what year this had been.

Along with rebuilding his entire coaching staff — several who departed with Forbes — Shay could count only three returning players from a 30-win, Southern Conference championship team from a year ago. He was forced to build a roster with transfers and freshmen.

"I wasn't able to interview anyone for my staff in person, we had to do it through Zoom," said Shay. 

"We couldn't recruit in person. 

"It was a challenge. 

"But I think we did well even though we do lack some experience. 

"I think we've really come along since the players got on campus in July but we still have a lot to improve on."

The Buccaneers started 1-2 in the Gulf Coast Showcase, losing to Abilene Christian 70-47 in their opener  and falling to Austin Peay 67-66 before bouncing back to beat Middle Tennessee State 57-43.

Leading the way for ETSU was returning redshirt junior Ledarrius Brewer, Kansas State transfer David Sloan, Maryland transfer Serrel Smith and Northern Kentucky transfer Silas Adheke.

One national scouting service picked ETSU as a contender in the Southern Conference behind favorites Furman and UNC Greensboro.

Ledarrius Brewer, freshman Marcus Niblack and junior transfer Ty Brewer were listed among the SoCon's top five newcomers by the same service.

Shay wasn't totally elated by his first career Division I win.

"I thought there'd be a little more jubilation," he admitted.

"It was probably more relief. 

"There's a lot of tradition at ETSU. There's a lot of expectations.

"The administration and fans want to win games. 

"We had a 'come to Jesus'  meeting after the first game (the 70-47 loss) and we played a lot better against Austin Peay and got beat on the last possession.

"Middle Tennessee State is a team that had beat Murray State. They're a traditional power in the Ohio Valley Conference."

Having until Tuesday before they travel to UNC Asheville, Shay and the Buccaneers have a chance to catch their breath.

"I thought we got better in each of the games," said Shay, a five-year assistant under Forbes at ETSU. "We played three days in a row. 

"We had great energy. We played well defensively but we struggled offensively. 

"We didn't shoot the ball well — we took quick shots — and we turned the ball over too much. That's a bad combination."

COVID permitting, ETSU will start its conference schedule Dec. 30 and run through Feb. 27. Stay tuned for updates on that.

"It could change daily," admits Shay. "There's been a cancellation or postponement daily with the other teams in our conference.

"We'll just take it one game at a time.

"We hope to get 18 games in and have a conference tourney."

ETSU, which had students on campus until Thanksgiving, has made a transition to virtual learning and will later make a decision about how to proceed in mid-January.

The ETSU arena, which holds 6,200, will be limited to 10% of capacity.  

East Tennessee State University men's basketball coach Jason Shay gives instructions to the Bucs during a game on Dec. 3, 2018 in Johnson City, Tenn., while he was still an ETSU assistant. [Dakota Hamilton/ETSU]

Mike Trueblood is the former longtime sports editor for The Register-Mail. You can email him at mtrueblood50@yahoo.com