An influx of newcomers provide optimism for the 2016-2017 basketball season at East Carolina as the Pirates start the season with an 8 p.m. home game tonight against Grambling State.
Five of ECU’s new players are eligible to play this season, including some size that was missing as the Pirates went 12-20 overall last season and 4-14 in the American Athletic Conference.
Wake Forest graduate transfer Andre Washington is the biggest addition physically at 7-feet, 1-inch and 235 pounds. He averaged 1.3 blocked shots per game in 2013-14, 10th in the ACC, and should provide a defensive presence in the paint.
Jabari Craig is another transfer with size. Craig (6-10, 235) initially signed with Southern California.
Redshirt freshman Deng Riak (6-10, 225) dealt with a shoulder injury for most of last season but gives seventh-year ECU coach Jeff Lebo another option inside.
The Pirates played mostly zone defense last season because of personnel limitations and generally lacked interior scoring.
Three double figure scorers return from a year ago, including junior B.J. Tyson (14.6), senior Caleb White (12.5) and sophomore Kentrell Barkley (10.1), who led the team in rebounding (6.3) on the way to making the AAC’s All-Rookie team.
Barkley also led ECU in steals with 38 and was second to Prince Williams, the Most Improved Player in the AAC in 2015-16 in assists with 93.
Prince Williams and Mike Zangari were seniors last season. Williams averaged 10.3 points and 3.8 assists. Zangari averaged 5.8 points and 3.8 rebounds.
Hard-working Michel Nzege is back after averaging 4.4 points and 3.7 rebounds. Clarence Williams contributed 3.1 points and 2.7 rebounds per game last year.
Lance Tejada, Charles Foster and Grant Bryant transferred out of the ECU program after averaging 8.4 points combined.
The Pirates got three league wins on the road and only one at home although that was a 64-61 victory over Temple, last season’s regular-season champions.
Lebo has been evaluating new talent that includes freshmen Elijah Hughes, who is 6-6, Jeremy Sheppard (6-1) and Raquan Wilkins (6-5).
Sheppard may figure in replacing the loss of Prince Williams at the point. Floor leadership could be a question as ECU looks to rise in the American. If Tyson runs the offense, that could diminish his scoring potential.
ECU was seeded eighth for the AAC Tournament last year and is picked seventh in the league’s preseason poll this year. Cincinnati was picked as the preseason favorite.
There are four new coaches in the AAC including Johnny Dawkins at Central Florida, Mike Dunleavy Sr. at Tulane, Tim Jankovich at Southern Methodist and Tubby Smith at Memphis.
The league tournament is March 9-12 in Hartford, CT, after being played in Orlando last year.
The Pirates also opened against Grambling at home last season, taking a 61-53 win as White scored 21 points and Barkley grabbed 11 rebounds.
The Tigers are coached by Shawn Walker, who played on the high school level at nearby Plymouth. Walker performed collegiately at Campbell and Elizabeth City State. He coached ETSU before taking over the Tigers program.
This is Walker’s third season at Grambling. The Tigers were 7-24 last season and 4-14 in the Southwestern Athletic Conference.