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March 15, 2017
THE MODERATOR: We are getting under way with East Tennessee State with the student-athletes.
Q. T.J., what's this process been like since you guys landed here? Does it feel more real now that you guys are in Orlando now the day before the game?
T.J. CROMER: Yeah, it feels more real now that we're actually here. It's just been an enjoyable experience just to be in the NCAA Tournament.
Q. A.J., pretty much same question, talk about the experience. I mean, you guys finally landing. Kind of delayed getting out of Johnson City, but talk about getting here.
A.J. MERRIWEATHER: Since we touched down, Orlando is beautiful. Ever since we got here, media has been crazy. Just enjoying the time here.
Q. T.J., can you just talk about when Coach got there and what your first reaction was when he was hired, and if you've got a great story, a great anecdote, we'd appreciate it right now.
T.J. CROMER: I just knew he was a man that means business when I first talked to him over the phone and when he first got the job. He had a plan from the first day there, and he wanted to turn the program around right away. It wasn't a rebuilding process. He wanted to come in and win right away.
Q. T.J., you've become basically a go-to scorer on the team. How has that transition been for you averaging almost 20 points a game this year under Coach Forbes?
T.J. CROMER: I wouldn't say I'm a go-to scorer. I just do whatever I have to do for the team to win. Some nights it's my night. Some nights it's my teammates' night.
Q. For Tevin and Hanner, can you guys talk about the experience you guys have had playing in the NCAA Tournament before and what you've talked to your teammates about what they can expect for tomorrow.
TEVIN GLASS: It was a great experience. Back then, I didn't play. I was doing a lot of watching. But all in all, it was a great experience then, I mean, watching and traveling to different places.
I just tell my teammates to just stay composed and play their game most definitely, and don't change nothing.
HANNER MOSQUERA-PEREA: Just like Tevin said, it's an amazing experience. All I got to say to my teammates, that we have to do everything that we have been doing so far. Nothing's going to change.
Q. Two parts, Hanner, real quick, your last time in the NCAA Tournament, was it against Wichita State? Coach likes to remind us of that, that wasn't a good outcome for you.
HANNER MOSQUERA-PEREA: It wasn't, but, you know, we all here now together. So it doesn't matter anymore.
Q. Talk about you what you've seen down low.
HANNER MOSQUERA-PEREA: Those are some big guys. We have a lot of work we have to do, and we've been getting prepared for it. So we're just looking forward to it.
Q. I wonder about your opinion on the All SoCon Team where you had only one guy on the first team and one guy on the second team, yet you guys won the league.
DESONTA BRADFORD: That type of stuff never really matters to me. What matters to me is winning the championship, and that's what we did. All of that first team, second team, none of that stuff really matters honestly.
Q. Another question for Desonta: As a bigger point guard, 6'4", have you used your size to your advantage in league play? And you've got another size advantage against Florida. How can you use that to your advantage?
DESONTA BRADFORD: Just try to use my length, my length and athleticism, and just rebound -- try to rebound down and just use my length. That's really it.
Q. A.J., T.J., and Desonta, can you guys talk about Florida defensively. They like to get after the guards, pressure there. Turnovers were an issue for you guys earlier in the season, but you really corrected that the last few weeks. What was the turnaround for that and what do you expect defensively from the Gators tomorrow?
DESONTA BRADFORD: Like you said, they try to get after you defensively, but we just got to stay composed, like Hanner and Tevin said, just do what we do to get us here.
Like you said, the turnovers was a problem for us in the beginning. It was easily fixable, and we did. Just got to continue to take care of the ball and just execute.
T.J. CROMER: I'd like to say they're a great defensive team. They're good with on hands and stealing the ball.
I think our problem earlier in the year with our turnovers, it just came with chemistry and not trusting each other as much as we do now. The more we played with each other, I feel like we got more comfortable, and that fixed our turnover problem.
A.J. MERRIWEATHER: Florida is a very good defensive team. They like to get their hands on ball and come and block shots. Early on in the season, when turnovers were a problem, we were just doing things on the move. Now we worked on a lot of just calming down and doing what we can do. I believe we fixed the problem.
Q. Question for T.J.: T.J., your coach alluded to the fact that, after hitting nine threes in the semifinal game, Greensboro kind of pressed up on you, and you got to the rim and were able to score that way. Just how much maturity has that shown in your game? And how would you describe how you go about when different people defend you?
T.J. CROMER: It just shows how much I worked on my game and how much I trust our coaching staff. They preached to me before the game that they played in two National Championship games. Their best players kind of tried to force it in. He just told me, "Don't force the issue tonight. The game will loosen up and come to you. Just keep at it and don't get discouraged when you're not getting the shots you want. Just take what the game gives you."
Q. T.J. and A.J., talk about how you've been able to block out some of the distractions. A lot of talk has been that you guys could be the first upset in the Tournament. Talk about how you guys have been able to, as Coach likes to say, tighten the circle.
T.J. CROMER: I was just going to say Coach has been preaching to us all year, primetime media and all that is nice to have, but you've got to tighten our circle. There's only 12 or 13 guys and our coaching staff that really have our back and know what we go through every day. We have to tighten our circle and remain focused.
A.J. MERRIWEATHER: Our team is kind of an older team. We have six seniors. I don't think that's a problem to get distractions. We have a lot of bond together. We have other friends, but I mean, as far as listening to them and stuff, I think we're kind of mature as far as who to listen to and when to do what.
Q. A.J. and T.J., you guys were all excited when you earned the bid. What would it mean to actually win a game in the Tournament?
T.J. CROMER: Honestly, it would mean a lot. It would mean a lot to the city and to just know that our season is not over. We're seniors, this could be some of our last time playing basketball. So it would just mean a lot to the program also.
A.J. MERRIWEATHER: It would mean everything, you know what I mean? I love playing basketball. I love winning. To win on this stage would just be another -- just part of my dream, just more to my dream, added bonuses. We just got to play our game.
Q. A.J., could you talk about how, at the end of the conference tournament, there's awards given out. You weren't given an all-tournament selection, but T.J. gave you his all-tournament plaque. Can you tell that story.
A.J. MERRIWEATHER: That's T.J. He's real. He's been that way since I met him. Always genuine, you know what I mean? Apparently, they didn't think I was deserving. It don't matter. That's just personal accolades.
That's just T.J. He came up to me. I didn't ask for it. Nobody told him, "Maybe you should give it to him." That's just T.J.
Q. Can you talk about that, T.J., your decision?
T.J. CROMER: I feel like he deserved it. He's a major key to our team. He guards the best offensive player on each team every night. Honestly, in my opinion, I felt it was disrespectful for him not to receive any award in the tournament when he was such a key to our team.
THE MODERATOR: Gentlemen, thank you very much. Good luck to you.
We are now joined by Coach Forbes. We will ask Coach to give an opening statement, and then please raise your hand with questions.
STEVE FORBES: We're really excited to be here. This is our tenth trip to the NCAA Tournament. East Tennessee State has a rich tradition of basketball. So it's an exciting time for our team and for our city to come down here and play in this great event.
We started talking about this a long time ago. June 22nd was our first summer practice. We got close last year. We lost to Chattanooga in the Finals of the SoCon Tournament.
We knew we had to change some things, and we have. This team has been consistent all year long. We've never lost two in a row. That's a hard thing to do, especially with the schedule we played and on the road as much as we played. So I'm very proud with their effort.
As you saw, we have six really solid seniors on our team and a lot of great leadership. T.J. Cromer has had a special year for us. You've got to have something like that to get here. I thought in the semifinal game against Sanford, he went for 41 points, nine threes. He was the first person to go plus 40 in a SoCon Tournament game since Steph Curry. Then the next night he goes for 23 and only shoots one three. That's the type of player he is. I'm real proud of his efforts, everybody on the team.
I took over three years ago. Some of these guys were left on the program, and they've really believed in me. Then we went and flipped the roster pretty well, and brought in a bunch of new guys, everybody's bought in to the culture that we have created. You can't accomplish something like this without having a lot great leadership. Our school is committed to having a great program. Dr. Sander, my athletic director, Dr. Noland, our president, these people have made it all possible for us to be here today.
Q. Coach, talk about the team when they arrived yesterday. I mean, talk about their mental state and how they've taken everything in so far.
STEVE FORBES: I think they're excited because this is a lifetime memory for them. I think they're very focused. We've have had some really, really good practices. You guys know me well enough to know that practice is important to me. Today will be our 149th practice since June 22nd.
I think for a team that really hasn't played since a week ago Monday, we've had some very, very focused practices. I think they understand what's at stake here. Even though they're having a good time, they understand this is a business trip, and I think they're ready to play.
Q. Steve, you were talking a little bit yesterday about watching the Kentucky-Florida game. What scares you most about Florida?
STEVE FORBES: Their speed and quickness. They're really fast. They've got great guards. Mike's done an incredible job with their team. It's tough to follow a legend like Billy D. I was in the league, and I saw them win two National Championships when I was at Tennessee. You've got to give him a lot credit for putting his own stamp on the program.
Their kids play really hard. I'm real impressed with the way they drive the ball. You can't foul them because they shoot free threes really well. We've got to take care of the ball because like us, they steal the ball a lot and they create offense off their defense.
I know they lost their big guy, big John -- I'm not going to even try to pronounce his last name. I saw him play in high school. My son is back there. He dunked on my son. Sorry, Chris. Big John was at Fort Dalton Beach High School, and I was at Northwest Florida. I saw what he can do. I'm sure what's been a tough loss for them. They still have a really long and athletic team.
Q. In his defense, he told me last night, you wouldn't have taken that charge either, your son.
STEVE FORBES: I would have definitely taken that charge. I'm tough.
Q. Coach, I did listen to Jim Rome yesterday. You were very funny there. You've captured something nationally. You've done 60 interviews I think in eight days. What is it about you and this team that everyone is so interested in?
STEVE FORBES: It's more perseverance than anything. We have some guys from the Land of Misfit Toys. If you ever watched Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, you know what I'm talking about. They all need a home. We all have a home here. We all have a story, and we've come together for a common goal, though, and that is to win and to go to the NCAA Tournament.
For me personally, I graduated with 32 people in 1983 from a small town in Iowa. I didn't play Division I basketball. I was a lot better baseball player. But my path is my path. I'm sure probably, to some people, that's an interesting path starting from junior college in southwestern Iowa to being here today.
Actually, my college basketball coach was Tom Mitchell. Anybody in here from Florida knows he's the vice president of development and alumni affairs at the University of Florida. So we both went from -- he went from sweatsuits to three-piece suits, and I stayed in the sweatsuit.
Q. Steve, when you went back to the juco ranks, did you ever imagine yourself sitting in this spot right there?
STEVE FORBES: It would be hard to say that. The day we got fired, no. I cleaned out my office on my birthday. That was a real memorable birthday. I probably thought I would get back to Division I at some point as an assistant. But being a head coach, I've got to give Dr. Sander all the credit for that. Sometimes they just want to win the press conference, and maybe I wasn't a real sexy hire at that time.
No, probably not. I really enjoyed being at Northwest Florida. It was great. I don't know who put the Wikipedia out there, but we were 62-6, not 61-6. As a head coach, we've got to get every win we can get, all right?
So I had some opportunities, but I knew it had to be the right one for me to leave. Gregg Marshall coming off the Final Four and giving me that opportunity, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. To be at Wichita and go 35-1 and 30-4 and then have Doc give me a call, I probably couldn't have scripted it any better.
Q. Coach, could you talk about, with the experience you and your staff have, and Tevin and Hanner, what's the message in terms of not just enjoying being here, but being here to win and move on?
STEVE FORBES: Just be business-like and stick to the plan. That's something we started in November, if you guys remember. We went to South Dakota and played in a three-game tournament up there. We played Milwaukee, who got to the finals of their tournament, South Dakota State, who is in the tournament, and then Irvine, who got to the finals. We won three games in three days. We had short turnarounds for scouting report. They were locked in and focused. That's all it has to be here is just be locked in and focused.
A lot of times I talk to our team about tightening our circle, blocking out the noise, and just concentrating on what the task at hand is. Having an older group, they're able to do that. I don't think that will be a problem.
Q. Coach, I know you and your kids were excited when you saw your name go up on the bracket, but the very next thing that was said was Seth predicting an upset. "This is the first upset I'm calling."
STEVE FORBES: Good for Seth.
Q. Do you guys take it as a compliment? Do you embrace it? Do you want the guys to put that out of your minds?
STEVE FORBES: I don't think they pay attention to that. We couldn't even hear it, to be honest, it was so loud in there. Somebody told us that later.
I don't think they put a lot into that. It's nice. That's the sexy matchups, the 12s and 13s. People like to say those are great upsets.
But I don't think so. I think they know Florida is really good. All you have to do is turn on tape and see them fly up and down the floor. Chris Chiozza is one of the fastest kids with the ball I've seen going north and south. I've coached against John Wall. He's not John Wall, but he's John Wall fast when he gets the ball in his hands.
I think we got their attention. The nice thing about playing our tournament early is we get a chance to enjoy it. I played in the SEC championship game on Sunday, and you went to the banquet room and the hotel after the game, watched the TV show, flew home, and flew back out again. You really didn't get a chance to enjoy it. These kids had the chance to enjoy the win over Greensboro for an entire week. I'm glad they had that opportunity.
Q. Coach, you talk about closing the circle, how about yourself? You've become one of the hottest names right now since you guys have made it into the Tournament. How have you closed your circle? Cut your phone off yet?
STEVE FORBES: No, because message boards and newspapers don't hire coaches. I don't worry about stuff like that.
I'm real happy where I'm at. You know me, I'm very focused on what the task at hand is. I'm really good at blocking out the noise. I've been there before. Being at Tennessee and A&M and Wichita State, we've had a lot of hype around our program. We were a Number 1 seed when I was at Wichita State.
I don't really get caught up in all that. I'm real happy being the head coach at East Tennessee State. I'm very lucky to be the head coach at East Tennessee State, and I'm going to remember you said that two years from now when you're trying to fire me.
Q. Coach, you've alluded to Florida's speed in the backcourt, but you guys have kind of bigger guards. Is there any way or how you can use that to your advantage or how you have maybe during your conference schedule?
STEVE FORBES: Defensively, we've been able to defend really well because of our length and our strength and our size. We have to try to use that to our advantage. One of the big things we cannot let Florida do is get second chances.
Robinson is really quick to the ball, quick to the basket. At 6'8" on the wing, he can play to three, play the four. He's got a little bit of an advantage there height-wise. We've got to try to use our physicality and our strength to try to keep Florida out of the paint. That's going to be a hard thing to do without fouling them.
If you ask me what are sometimes our weaknesses? Sometimes we foul a little too much. We turn the ball over a little too much. And that plays into Florida's hands.
Q. Coach, I wanted to follow up on that in talking to you and following you this year. Turnovers has really been the story for you. When you don't turn it over, you play well. What have you done in practice to try eliminate it?
STEVE FORBES: I don't know. We practice really hard. One of the proudest moments for me is at the SoCon Tournament, we were sitting up here after the Mercer game, and someone asked Desonta Bradford, "Did you guys panic when you were down 12?" And he said, "No, the practice is harder than the game." That's not necessarily true but that was pride for me to hear him say that.
We've got the old Bob Huggins treadmill behind the floor. If you turn it over too much, you have to go on the treadmill. I've haven't had to use it much. We've gotten better at handling the ball.
Some of that goes with playing fast. Sometimes when you play fast, you're going to turn it over a little bit. We try to play fast. We haven't really done anything. We just talk about it and try to correct it.
Q. Steve, you talked about cleaning your office out on your birthday. Can you just talk about the despair that you were feeling at that point? You had the show-cause and everything.
STEVE FORBES: The show-cause, hadn't gotten that yet. We hadn't gone to the Committee on Infractions until in the summer. But as a father, it's a tough moment. I've been married 27 years now -- or 28, I think. My wife's going to kill me. You've got three kids. It's a tough moment. You're not quite sure what you're going to do and how you're going to pay your bills and sell the house. The housing market was bad at that time, and I had a big house. I just really wasn't prepared financially for something like that.
And then going back to -- but I was employed pretty quickly. Northwest Florida, Mickey Englett, the AD at Northwest Florida, called me, and I got an opportunity there pretty quickly. The money was obviously a lot less. We had to downsize. You know what, that was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. I didn't need all that stuff. I didn't need a big house. I knew that growing up.
It's just something that -- you know, adversity does certain things to certain people, and I thought it was a tremendous teaching moment for me. I try to tell our players all the time, when you get knocked down, you got to get back up. You tell your kids that, and there I was knocked down, and my children were looking at me like, what's dad going to do? So I felt like I had to get up, be accountable, and persevere.
Just like our team. I think that's probably -- if you ask me that about our team, we're just a team that perseveres.
Q. (No microphone).
STEVE FORBES: No, I knew I could coach. The junior college option was there. I had some Division I coaches call me that asked me to be their assistant, but I knew with what was probably coming down, it wouldn't be a good thing to drag that with me to another school. So I felt like going back to junior college was the right path. A lot of people wouldn't want to do that.
Some people asked me the other day, why didn't you just sit out? I didn't have enough money to sit out. And I really wanted to coach, guys. I love coaching. I played junior college basketball. I coached it for 11 years. Great players. Two of my players are over at the hotel right now, Chris Jones, who played at Louisville, and Shakeem Jackson. I just felt like I could really go help some young men turn their dreams into reality. So I thought the junior college route was perfect for me.
And one thing about junior college, when you've got really good players, everybody's coming through. So I kept the same network of friends that I had for many years in Division I, and I knew ultimately I would get the opportunity to go back as an assistant. It just had to be with the right person at the right time.
Q. Coach, when you were hired, you talked about bringing championships to Johnson City. It's one thing to say that at the press conference, but you've done that. Is this faster than you thought? Or did it exceed your expectations this quickly?
STEVE FORBES: Well, I have a lot of confidence. We talked a lot about that when I took the job. I talked about cutting down nets, playing meaningful games in March. But I just feel like Dr. Sander didn't hire me to come to the podium and say we're going to finish third or fourth or fifth and maybe be good in year three, four, or five. I don't think that's what people want to hear. As a coach, do I really want to say that? Probably not, but that's just the way it is.
I have a lot of confidence in my abilities. I have a lot of confidence in our staff's abilities. That's one thing that I don't think people really understand is how talented our staff is. Jason Shay, we worked together for five years at the University of Tennessee. Beat a lot of nationally ranked teams, including Florida, and it was his scout all the time. So I have a very talented person right next to me.
Brooks Savage was with us the whole time at Tennessee, and he was with me at Northwest Florida. Brian Collins played for Rick Barry. His dad was a high school Hall of Fame coach. He was a starting point guard on Belmont's first NCAA Tournament team. He's played professionally. The one thing I'm proud of, everybody on my staff, besides Brian, was with me at Northwest Florida. Think about that. All junior college guys, Jason and me, Brooks, Matt Cline is my DOBO, we were all at Northwest Florida. And Brian actually came down and played us at one time.
Q. Coach, I want you to elaborate on your recruiting philosophy. You seem to reload more than recruit. Is that your juco background because you've always had to turn over teams, you're always looking for talent, doesn't it?
STEVE FORBES: It works for Calipari. He gets a little different cat than I get, but it's kind of the same deal. Yeah, I think you've got to go where you're strong. Johnson City, Tennessee, is not Memphis, Tennessee. We're not sitting around -- we don't wake up every morning and surrounded by 30, 40 Division I basketball players.
So my job is to fill that arena and win basketball games. So it was the best route that I felt like for East Tennessee State to get where we wanted to be today was to go out and tap into those connections that we all have in junior college and then transfers, too.
We sprinkled in some good high school players too, and we'll continue to do that. I just like good players because I know good players make good coaches. As long as they allow me to be the coach here, we're going to continue to compete for championships. To do that, I don't care where you're from as long as you can play.
FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports