The Bucs Started with Jennings

January 13, 2010 | RSS

Three years in the NCAA Tournament, one year in the NBA playoffs. Not a bad legacy for Keith "Mister" Jennings.


It was as a point guard at East Tennessee State that Jennings first burst onto the college basketball scene. He later spent four seasons in the NBA, 10 years overseas, and is now an assistant coach at Bluefield College.


Yet, Jennings wasn't sure he would ever get such opportunities while growing up in Culpeper, Va. Seems most Division I programs only saw his 5-foot-7 frame, and let that overshadow the fact that he was one of the top players in the state.


"I was disappointed, I would think if you were first team all-state as a junior, you would at least make some waves," Jennings said. "I was on that team with some pretty good seniors at the time so I at least thought I would get some opportunities, but it didn't happen.


"The next year I was first-team all-state again and three-time player of the year in my conference, and James Madison, George Mason, Richmond, all the area schools really showed me no interest.


"Emory & Henry had come by, and there was a community college in Roanoke that wanted me to come, and VMI, but I wasn't feeling the military thing."


Eventually, at the recommendation of a cousin at the Johnson City, Tenn., campus, a pair of assistants at ETSU attended games played by Jennings. He impressed, and was rewarded a scholarship by then-head coach Les Robinson.


Call it a good move for both Jennings and the Buccaneers.


A starter from his first game, Jennings led ETSU to 75-23 record over his final three seasons, claiming three Southern Conference championships and three NCAA tournament appearances.


Jennings was joined under the roof of the school's Mini-Dome by such talents as Greg Dennis, Castlewood athlete extraordinare Calvin Talford and a slew of players that made ETSU into a national story in the college ranks from 1989-92.


"I think in college our chemistry was so good we didn't care who got the news headlines the next day, we just wanted to win so it was easy," Jennings said. "We all shared the ball and like five of us scored over 1,000 points and very seldom do you see that from one class that comes in."


As a sophomore, Jennings and the Buccaneers nearly pulled off what could have been the biggest upset in NCAA tournament history. ETSU was an unknown 16th seed, Oklahoma was the top-ranked team in the nation.


"A 16 has never beat a No. 1. They were No. 1 in the country at that time and we snuck in the tournament, we're just a bunch of sophomores, wide-eyed and not knowing anything," Jennings said. "I just remember we were running (onto the court) and I saw them looking at us and I was yelling back at my guys, I was like 'They don't respect us, ya'll, they don't respect us'.


"From that moment I knew they would be ready to play, I didn't know we were going to get up like 16 points on them, but you do learn from those games."


Oklahoma rallied and survived, but eventually lost in the third round to Virginia - which included Richard Morgan, who is now Jennings' boss at Bluefield.


"That was one of my toughest losses ever, I have that game on tape, and I watch it every now and then," Jennings said. "It is funny to see how we matured as players, but (we lost) 72-71, I fouled out with one minute and 21 seconds left, I still remember the time on the clock.


"I still to this day say I didn't foul him, but there was no way it was going to get overturned. It was just a surprise for them. I grew up from that game and what I try to get across to this team is no matter what a team looks like, you've got to respect them."


ETSU returned to the NCAAs the next two years, but dropped a 99-83 decision to Georgia Tech - which eventually advanced to the Final Four in 1990 - and lost 76-73 to Iowa in '91.


"You've got to learn how to lose those games before you can win them and it was a heart-breaking loss," Jennings said. "It was probably my toughest, between that one and my senior year against Iowa, they were probably the toughest two college losses that I had to deal with.


"It was not like it was that tough to deal with, you're going to have a winner and a loser anyway."


Jennings had moved on when ETSU finally pulled a tourney shocker, upsetting third-seeded Arizona 87-80 in '92. The Bucs lost to Michigan in the second round, and the Wolverines advanced to the title game before losing to Duke.


"People are always like 'It's great that ya'll beat Arizona', but I missed that game," Jennings said. "The thing is we played them the year before in the Preseason NIT and we played them really well so I think when they got matched up against them, they were familiar with them.


"I think they were just ready to play against them that night."


Jennings had a remarkable career, leading ETSU to a national ranking of 10th in 1991, while finishing with 1,988 points in four seasons, the second most in school history. In terms of NCAA records, Jennings is fourth all-time in assists (983) and second in 3-point percentage (49.3).


He earned second-team All-America honors as a senior, hitting on an astounding 59 percent of his long range shot attempts. Jennings also earned the Naismith Award, given to the most outstanding collegiate senior six feet tall and under.


Yet, when the NBA Draft was held a few months later, Jennings' phone never rang.


"It took me back to high school, I was a two-time all-state player that wasn't really going to get an opportunity to play college basketball until East Tennessee State stepped in," Jennings said. "I was the Naismith Award winner, and I was a second-team All-America, and I always wondered how many All-Americans didn't go in the first two rounds of the draft.


'I know I'm one of them so I had to take a different route to get to the NBA, but it was well worth it, it made me grow up."


Jennings did attend a camp with the Indiana Pacers as a free agent and was cut in the first week. He wound up in Germany, and, after four seasons on NBA rosters, would eventually spend nearly 10 years playing overseas.


That first season in Germany set the tone for his NBA experience that would soon follow.


"I think it was a good learning experience, it made me even hungrier, and I did realize the difference between college and the NBA was enormous," Jennings said. "Even though I was an All-American, one of the best players in college, I found out quickly that the NBA is a whole other level.


"Going to Germany was not a bad idea, I played against some professionals, started to understand the game more and then I did what I had to do given another opportunity and I thank God every day for that opportunity that the Warriors saw in me."