East Carolina returns to the XL Center in Hartford, CT, site of its only win in its two previous American Athletic Conference tournaments.
The Pirates (14-17, 6-12 AAC) are seeded No. 9 and play eighth-seeded Temple (16-15, 7-11) on Thursday at 3:30 p.m. on ESPNU.
The Owls topped ECU in Philadelphia, 81-62, on Jan. 7. The Pirates had to take a bus home because their flight was canceled as a winter storm gripped the Northeast.
The adjustments were just beginning for ECU, which lost leading scorer B.J. Tyson to a knee injury in the next game, a 74-58 home loss to Houston on Jan. 11.
Jeff Lebo coached the next contest, a 55-46 home loss to Cincinnati, before taking a leave of absence for a left hip replacement.
“We always have a next man up approach whether it’s players or coaches,” said Pirates interim coach Michael Perry.
Tyson has come back although he hasn’t had his characteristic effectiveness. Lebo has been to practices and put in an appearance on Senior Night before a 66-62 win over Connecticut on March 1, but has not returned to an active role on the sideline.
Tyson scored 19 points and had five assists in an 81-80 overtime win over Central Florida in ECU’s opener in the AAC Tournament at the XL Center two years ago.
Southern Methodist, this season’s top seed, survived an upset bid by the Pirates for a 74-68 win in the second round in 2015.
In the conference tournament last year in Orlando, ECU was knocked out by South Florida, 71-66, in the opening round.
AAC commissioner Mike Aresco said the league tournament will return to Orlando next year. After that, it’s up for bids.
All 11 teams that are converging on the XL Center get their shot at making the NCAA Tournament through the automatic bid that goes to the league tournament champion.
The last time ECU made the Big Dance was in 1993 when the Pirates went into the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament in Richmond with a 10-16 record. ECU was 4-10 in league play but reeled off wins over Old Dominion (73-67), UNC Wilmington (55-50) and James Madison (54-49) for the CAA title.
The Cinderella run ended with an 85-65 loss to eventual champion North Carolina in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Winston-Salem.
ECU was similarly flying under the radar in 1972 when it earned its only other NCAA Tournament appearance by winning the Southern Conference Tournament in Greenville, SC. The Pirates edged Furman 77-75 in overtime in the final. That team finished 14-15.
From an historical standpoint, a losing record doesn’t preclude the Pirates making a run in the league event.
“We’re looking forward to the conference tournament, obviously,” Perry said. “It’s the second season for us. Our kids have been playing good basketball here of late. We had, obviously, a setback [Sunday] against Houston but we’re still focused and very determined. We’re ready to get postseason play started with.”
The Pirates haven’t had to worry about classes this week. The university is on spring break.
“That’s great,” Perry said. “When it’s just basketball, our guys seem to have a tendency to dial in and be a lot more focused. We’re looking forward to not having any distractions whatsoever. We, obviously, spend a lot of time together when you’re on the road. This is an extended road trip, starting in Houston and then on to Hartford but we get a chance to spend a lot of time together.”
The Pirates had to hustle through the airport in Chicago to catch their connecting flight to Hartford on Tuesday evening, but they made it.
ECU worked out in Houston’s practice facility Monday and Tuesday.
“We have a few days of down time in terms for practice between games so we get a chance to work on some things and iron some kinks out,” Perry said earlier this week. “We played 25 minutes of good basketball [Sunday]. It’s the last 15 minutes that we’ve got to work hard at being able to correct.”
Houston appeared to find an offensive rhythm in the latter portion of a 73-51 win as ECU managed just 19 points in the second half after trailing 33-32 at the break.
“It was a combination of [the play of] both [teams],” Perry said. “They are the third best team in our league. They’re a cut above the other teams in the pack and they played that way, particularly the last 15 minutes of the game. That’s when good teams generally have their separation and that sort of played out [Sunday]. Just discipline — they can sustain what they do for longer periods of time. You saw that come into play [Sunday], particularly on the offensive glass. We had breakdowns in terms of turning the ball over. They did a good job. They converted them. Between those two things, the second chance opportunities and the turnovers, we gave them too many opportunities to exercise their will.
“When they’re the third best team in the league, their will is going to outdo you.”
The Pirates would like to have Tyson in peak form but he only managed six points in 19 minutes Sunday. He was averaging 11.9 points before he was hurt.
“We’re hoping we can get as much out of him as possible,” Perry said. ” … It’s something we’re going to have to continue to work through as a player and as a coaching staff. We’ve got to pick our spots, too, where we can utilize him.”
One personnel situation that has worked in ECU’s favor was the addition of Andre Washington, a 7 feet, 1 inch senior, who was immediately eligible as a graduate transfer from Wake Forest. He blocked three shots at Houston on Sunday to set a school season record with 92.
Perry said Washington has changed the program’s identity.
“Let’s start with overall defensive field goal percentage,” Perry said. “Last year’s team was primarily known for 3-point shooting and offensive numbers. In one year, with the addition of Andre, we’ve gone to being one of the top defensive teams in the country, percentage-wise.”
The Pirates are 10th among 347 Division I teams in field goal percentage defense. Opponents are hitting just 38.7 percent of their attempts against ECU. A year ago, foes made 44.7 percent against the Pirates. The AAC has some of the top defensive teams in the nation, led by Central Florida, which has a defensive field goal percentage of 36.1, lowest in the country.
Cincinnati is sixth in Division I at 38.0 and SMU is eighth at 38.5.
“We have tremendous defensive numbers,” Perry said. “That’s because of Andre Washington, with his ability to block shots. He’s a great rim protector. . . . His presence in the game is not only reflected in the shots he blocks but the shots he alters and the shots that he actually deters teams from even taking just because of his presence.
“It allows our guys at other positions to be able to pressure the ball at a level at which they can pressure teams into turnovers and pressure teams into difficult shots because they can’t drive the ball into the paint because we’ve got a great rim protector there. They can sell out and really extend the defense. It’s translated overall into a great defensive presence for us that’s affected our overall defensive numbers.”
ECU had 64 blocked shots as a team last season. This year, the Pirates have blocked 165 shots.
ECU topped Temple 78-64 in Greenville on Feb. 15 as Washington went 6-for-8 from the field and had 15 points.
“He was close to dominant,” said Owls coach Fran Dunphy.
The Temple coach said he also was concerned about Caleb White heating up from long range and the general excellence of Kentrell Barkley, whose late game heroics produced a 64-61 ECU win over the Owls in Greenville last season.
The ECU-Temple winner meets No. 12 SMU (27-4, 17-1) at noon on Friday in the quarterfinals, which may seem more like a punishment than a reward.
The key for the Pirates playing another day may well be some offensive production from a number of possible sources. White has been erratic but erupted for 28 points last week against the Huskies. Freshman Jeremy Sheppard has run the offense and provided some scoring as well. Freshman Elijah Hughes had some big games earlier this season.
Michel Nzege had 13 points against UCF in the XL Center two years ago. Barkley can certainly put up some numbers.
Finding some offense to go with one of the nation’s top defenses appears essential in advancing to Friday.