East Carolina beat Connecticut in men’s basketball on Wednesday.
In any other year, such a result would be considered a watershed moment for the Pirates. UConn, after all, is a college hoops blueblood with four national championships to its credit.
But this isn’t your typical group of Huskies. At 14-15 overall, 9-8 in the American Athletic Conference, they’re just another middle-of-the-pack team playing out the string this season.
Beating them now is akin to a rookie pitcher striking out Willie Mays when he was a 40-year-old shadow of himself hanging on as a member of the New York Mets. It’s something to tell the grandkids about someday, even though the actual accomplishment isn’t quite as impressive as it might seem.
Still, when you’re a struggling program like ECU, teetering on the brink of a third straight losing season, any win — especially one coming on Senior Night with a beloved upperclassman hitting for a career-best 28 points — is cause for celebration.
And the fact is that those celebrations, however modest, have come with greater frequency of late.
After starting the AAC schedule by losing five of its first six games under coach Jeff Lebo, ECU has gone 5-6 over its last 11 since Lebo turned the reins over to assistant Michael Perry while recovering from hip replacement surgery.
Though some of that success can be attributed to a lighter schedule — all of the wins have come against teams in the bottom half of the league standings — there’s no denying that progress has been made. If nothing else, the Pirates are already guaranteed of finishing this season with more wins both overall and in the conference than they did a year ago.
“The guys can see how close we are to being with the teams at the top of the league and that’s where we want to be,” Perry said after the UConn game. “This is another step toward being a championship contender in this league. UConn may not be as good record-wise as they’ve been, but they’re going to be back. That’s one of the best programs in the country.”
The question now is whether ECU’s progress is enough to keep the program going in its current direction for at least another year. And if it is, who should be leading it?
An argument can be made that the team’s late-season growth was inevitable because of the abundance of youth on the roster and the foundation Lebo built before the pain in his hip made it impossible for him to continue on the sideline.
But what if freshmen Jeremy Sheppard, Elijah Hughes and Deng Riak and their teammates simply responded better to Perry’s leadership?
It’s a possibility athletic director Jeff Compher will have to consider.
Perry has head coaching experience, having spent four seasons at the helm at Georgia State. His 2003-04 team finished with a 20-9 record while playing an uptempo style that helped it set a school record for 3-point baskets.
Perhaps he might be the better option moving forward.
Or maybe it’s time to cut the cord, make a clean break and like N.C. State an hour or so up the road, start over fresh with a new staff and a new philosophy.
Like it or not, the most probable scenario is that Compher will choose the path of least resistance, maintain the status quo and give Lebo at least one more chance at mowing down a few of the AAC’s current heavy hitters — not just the bottom of the order and a past-its-prime slugger with a name more impressive than its record.