T.J. Cromer looks no further than his jersey to remind him of how far he’s come and the progress he’s made.
East Tennessee State’s standout senior guard chose the number zero when he arrived in Johnson City, Tenn., following a stellar junior college career. His preferred No. 10 was already taken by teammate Isaac Banks, and zero matched the number of Division I scholarship offers he had coming out of high school in Albany, Ga.
“I know that without God, I wouldn’t be here,” Cromer said, “so I chose the number zero.”
From those humble beginnings sprang a junior college All-American and now one of the Southern Conference’s best players, a young man who leads the Buccaneers (18-5, 8-2 SoCon) into Monday’s game against league rival Wofford on ASN.
“When you’re the best player,” head coach Steve Forbes said, “you have a responsibility to be the best practice player, and he’s done that. That’s rubbed off on the rest of our team.”
Cromer is second in the conference in scoring (18.2 ppg) for a balanced, improving group capable of winning with offense or defense. The Buccaneers, winners of four in a row, top the SoCon in scoring (83.2 ppg) in league games and shoot a gaudy 51 percent from the field as a team. They’re also second in field-goal percentage defense (.408), second in rebound margin (plus-5.5) and first in steals (10 per game).
“I feel like we’re really a special team,” Cromer said. “I feel like people are asleep on us because of our name, but I think we can win in a variety of ways and that’s what makes us special.”
Cromer’s college journey began at Columbia State Community College in Columbia, Tenn., where in two years he averaged nearly 20 points per game for Coach Brian Collins and was a JC All-American. When Forbes became head coach at ETSU in 2015, he hired Collins as an assistant, and Collins convinced Cromer to follow him.
Cromer made an immediate impact, averaging 14.9 points on a team that won 24 games, advanced to the SoCon tournament title game and competed in the Vegas 16 postseason event. Though he was successful right away, the transition from junior college to Division I was a revelation.
“I learned that you really have to put the work in,” he said. “You have to be in better shape than junior college. You have to really be fundamentally sound and you have to know your reads more.”
Cromer elevated his game in numerous ways. At 6-3 and 195 pounds, he is 25 pounds heavier than in junior college, with added strength, quickness and flexibility. He shoots 39 percent from 3-point range, but is strong enough now to absorb contact and finish at the rim. He also assumed a greater leadership role this season.
“I feel like I’m a better player because I’m smarter,” he said. “I’m a smarter player than I was last year. I study the game more than I did last year.”
“I think T.J. has really come into his own as a player,” Forbes said. “It’s pretty obvious that he can score the basketball, but I think he’s let the game come to him more this year, instead of trying to create on his own. His team has done a really good job of sharing the ball. There are some nights where teams try to take him away, and he’s done a great job of not forcing things and getting teammates involved. I think it’s hard to play us that way.”
Cromer’s maturity was evident during the Bucs’ current win streak. He scored a game-high 24 points in ETSU’s most recent game, a come-from-behind, 81-71 win at VMI. In the previous game, he had just eight points in a 76-71 win against Chattanooga, but the other four starters finished in double figures.
“We’re pretty balanced,” he said. “If you take away the guards, we can feed our bigs and our bigs can make plays for us, which happened in the Chattanooga game. If you take away the bigs, we’ve got great guards.”
Indeed, the team added size with 6-9 transfer Hanna Mosquera-Perea (Indiana) and 6-8 transfer Tevin Glass (Wichita State), as well as 6-6 junior college product David Burrell. Their presence inside demands defensive attention and creates openings for Cromer and guards Desonta Bradford (11 ppg) and A.J. Merriweather (8.7 ppg).
“This team is built to play inside-out,” Forbes said. “I like where we’re at, but I also know we’ve got to continue to get better for us to have a chance to win the league.”
Dave Fairbank is a freelance writer based in Kill Devil Hills, N.C. Follow him on Twitter at @FairbankOBX.