This may or may not be a make-or-break season for East Carolina basketball coach Jeff Lebo. That all depends on the commitment athletic director Jeff Compher has for the sport that has always been something of a redheaded stepchild to the Pirates’ football program.
Regardless of the level of urgency attached to it — and disregarding Tuesday’s 76-53 loss at Virginia as an inevitable speed bump against a top 10 opponent on the road — Lebo and his team are off to a promising start in 2016-17.
But then, it’s not how you start that counts. It’s how you finish. And history tells us that Lebo’s teams have traditionally had problems finishing during his first six seasons at ECU.
Take last year, for example.
After getting off to a solid 7-4 start, including a victory against eventual NCAA tournament team and CAA champion UNC-Wilmington, the Pirates won just four more times the rest of the way — including a dreadful 4-14 record in the American Athletic Conference.
With the exception of the CIT championship season of 2012-13, when it finished with a 9-7 mark in Conference USA (23-12 overall), ECU has not had a winning league record under its current coach. In all but one of those years, the Pirates started well by going 7-2 in 2010-11, 8-4 in 2011-12, 10-2 in 2013-14 and 7-4 in 2015-16.
So it is that ECU’s current 7-3 record should be viewed with at least a dash of realism.
And yet, there are signs that this year could actually be different with the realistic possibility of tangible improvement and, yes, perhaps even a winning record.
“Our guys are excited,” Lebo said. “We feel like we’re in a good spot right now.”
One reason for that optimism is the apparent drop-off that has taken place at the top of the AAC standings compared to ECU’s first two seasons as a conference member. Though Cincinnati appears strong at No. 22 nationally and Central Florida is off to a strong start under new coach Johnny Dawkins, UConn has looked uncharacteristically shaky while other perennial frontrunners Memphis, Temple and Southern Methodist have also shown signs of vulnerability.
While finishing in the top half of a more balanced 11-team league will still be a tall task, it’s not an entirely unreasonable goal — especially given the taller makeup of this year’s roster.
The addition of fifth-year graduate transfer Andre Washington from Wake Forest and JUCO big man Jabari Craig, along with the return of healthy redshirt freshman Deng Riak, has finally given ECU some size it has lacked up front to defend and hold its own in the battle of the boards.
The 7-foot-1 Washington, in particular, has been a revelation while showing signs of potential low post dominance as in his 21-point, 16-rebound, six-blocked shot performance against Stetson on Nov. 20.
At the other end of the size spectrum, Lebo has addressed his team’s other most glaring need by bringing in the true point guard his program has always seemed to lack.
Not only is freshman Jeremy Sheppard a talented ballhandler with speed, he’s also showing he can be a legitimate shooting threat by knocking down six of his last nine 3-point attempts over the past two games.
Sheppard still has a lot to learn, especially after missing the first three games of his career for disciplinary reasons. And, as Lebo pointed out after Saturday’s home win against N.C. Central, he still has to look over at the bench for his coach to make all the offensive calls for him.
But his potential appears to be unlimited, especially as an added perimeter weapon to help take some of the pressure off veteran mainstays Caleb White, Kentrell Barkley and B.J. Tyson.
“Me and Shep, you have to play us honest on the perimeter,” White said. “You have to choose: Do you help and try to pack it in or do you stay closer to the shooters and be able to close out?”
It’s a choice that makes the Pirates “a lot more dangerous,” in White’s estimation.
Exactly how much more dangerous will be determined very soon, as the schedule takes a decidedly more difficult turn — starting with Saturday’s home game against College of Charleston, followed by a trip to Wilmington to play a strong flock of Seahawks. Then after one final nonconference tuneup against Presbyterian, it will be time to start AAC play.
“We’ve got a tough stretch coming up here, but I think we’re getting better,” Lebo said. “Guys are working hard. We’ve played a lot of games in a short period of time, so we haven’t had a lot of time to practice. But we’ll have a little more time during finals to take a little bit of a deep breath.”
While the Virginia loss exposed some shortcomings that may not have been as obvious in wins against lesser opponents during the first month of the season — most notably a penchant for committing turnovers in bunches — ECU has once again put itself in position to take a positive stride forward this season.
Now the question is, can it finish the job this time? Lebo’s future with the Pirates may hinge on the answer.