The East Carolina basketball team averted a soul-crushing loss Wednesday when it held on to beat Tulsa 69-66 after nearly squandering a double-digit second half lead.
Whether the victory ends up being a turning point that catapults the team to a strong finish under interim coach Michael Perry or just a temporary respite from a season that is slowly and painfully setting in the west is yet to be seen.
Whichever it turns out to be, there is at least one thing that can be said with virtual certainty about the 2016-17 Pirates.
Coach Jeff Lebo isn’t going anywhere, unless its by his own choice.
That’s not to say Lebo’s job would have been in legitimate jeopardy had his hip not given out, forcing him to take an indefinite leave of absence while he recovers and rehabs from surgery earlier this month. Athletic director Jeff Compher might have been inclined to keep him on no matter what, given that he’s bound to him by contract through 2021.
The bottom line is that any critical evaluation of the program and the direction in which it is going became impossible the moment he stepped away following a loss to Cincinnati on Jan. 15. There’s simply too much uncertainty to make anything close to a fair judgement.
We’ll never know how much the pain Lebo was in contributed to the collapse that saw ECU drop eight of the last 10 games he coached after a promising 7-2 start. And we’ll never know how much his absence will affect the development of young players such as freshmen Elijah Hughes, Jeremy Sheppard and Deng Riak moving forward through the end of the season.
It’s a similar situation, though on a much smaller scale, to the one Duke is going through now while its coach Mike Krzyzewski is sidelined. Even the best of teams inevitably take a step back when their leader is taken away from them.
Lebo was consciously vague when asked about his long-term future with the Pirates a few days before undergoing his surgery.
“I haven’t thought about that,” the seventh-year coach, whose 108 victories are the most in school history at the Division I level, said after the Cincinnati game. “To be honest, I’ve just been worried about today. Now that today’s over, I’m going to worry about getting through tomorrow.”
Now his team is taking things one day at a time, an approach that is anything but ideal.
But while it could potentially set the program back even farther than originally anticipated as the Pirates teeter on the brink of their third straight losing season, there’s just as much of a chance that Perry can rally the young troops and produce an unexpectedly promising finish. Just look at what happened Wednesday, when despite some nervous moments down the stretch, ECU held off a solid Tulsa team that came into the game with a 5-1 American Athletic Conference record.
The only fair and reasonable thing to do under the circumstances is to hold off on any long-term decisions, ride out the rest of the season and — for better or for worse — begin the process over from scratch when Lebo returns to the sideline for 2017-18.
That’s not the answer fans anxious for either a tangible sign of progress or a change in leadership want to hear.
At this point, though, there are few other available options.