It’s safe to say that Jeff Lebo never had a year in coaching like the 2016-17 season when he had to have a left hip replacement in mid-January and did not have an active role on the East Carolina sideline afterward.
“I’m getting better each week,” Lebo said. “I’ve been doing my physical therapy, which I’ve been pretty much released from now. I do that on my own now. I’m feeling good. I’m feeling better. The pain is gone and I’m recovering ahead of schedule.”
The ECU coach talked about his physical therapy.
“Stretching is a big thing,” he said. “Walking, weight lifting for your legs and your hamstrings and the muscles around your hip. . . . And walking a lot. They want you to walk a lot.”
The former North Carolina guard stayed as close to the program as circumstances would allow.
“It was different, no doubt about it,” Lebo said. “I was really out of pocket for about two weeks. Then I was involved with scouting reports and film and meetings. I was at practice. I just couldn’t be near the floor because of the chance of getting hit.
“I was still there. The games were the hardest part, not being able to be with the team or on the court. That was the hard part, having to watch it on television. I was not there at the games but I was still involved with the team.”
Michael Perry handled duties as interim head coach with assistants Ken Potosnak and Mike Netti in expanded roles. Lebo was pleased with his staff’s efforts in his absence from games.
“No doubt and I wouldn’t have expected any other way because I’ve got a good, experienced staff.” Lebo said. “Any one of them could have done the job. They all worked very well together. They’re a group that’s been through just about everything because of their experiences. I had a lot of trust in them and they did a marvelous job, all of them, in picking up pieces and being in kind of a unique situation there.
“It’s something that wasn’t new to Mike or to Kenny. They had been through that before in their experiences at other places. It was different but not all the way different because they had both experienced that before.”
A 66-62 Senior Night win over Connecticut and an 80-69 victory over Temple in the first round of the American Athletic Conference tournament in Hartford, CT, were among the late season highlights for ECU, which finished 15-18 overall and 6-12 in the league.
“We won some games, Lebo said. “There’s no doubt about that. I thought we played better at the end of the season. We understood kind of what we needed to do. Before the season started, we wanted to be a better rebounding team. We needed to be a better defensive team. We did both of those things. We were much bigger. We were much stronger, much more athletic. We looked like a team that belongs in this league. I thought the biggest area where we needed to make improvements was defensively and we were really much better on the defensive end. We were one of the tops in the country in field goal percentage defense. We were among the tops in the country and maybe fourth in the league because the league was up at the top.”
Central Florida was first in Division I in field goal percentage defense at 39.2. Southern Methodist was seventh at 38.6. Cincinnati was ninth at 38.8 and the Pirates were tenth at 39.2. The addition of seven feet, one inch graduate transfer Andre Washington helped ECU change its identity. Washington blocked a school season record 95 shots.
“Where we helped ourselves there on the defensive rebounding side, we weren’t as good on the offensive end, which I was worried about at the beginning of the year — being able to shoot the ball consistently from the outside at multiple spots because we were going to be much bigger,” Lebo said. “That was kind of the case. Caleb [White] was an important part of that. When he shot the ball, obviously, we were much better.
Injuries were a factor that kept ECU from being at its best.
At the beginning of the year we played without [Jeremy] Sheppard,” Lebo said. “We played without [Michel] Nzege. We played multiple games without Elijah [Hughes]. Early in the season, people forget that we had multiple guys in and out, trying to get rotations. Then we had B.J. [Tyson] out late. We had a lot of guys that missed a lot of games.
“We were constantly trying to tweak. We had to find new guys because this guy was going to be out and for multiple games. . . . In the Charlotte game, we played a guy who was my manager [Addison Hill] 20 minutes in that game because we were down guys. The early part of the season we had a lot of moving parts. We lost B.J. the Houston game (Jan. 11). He never really kind of got back to his old self. That’s a hard time for him to be out and miss that much.”
Fleming expected to have impact
After sitting out a season after transferring from Hawaii, 6-3 Isaac Fleming may help swing the pendulum back toward the offensive side for the Pirates.
“He’s a talented player,” Lebo said. “He’s sat for a year and will have a transition period but he can handle the ball. He’s strong. He can drive the ball to the basket. He can hit a seam. He can really defend the ball. He’ll have an impact on our team I think but he hasn’t played for a year, so I think the first couple of games he’ll probably need some time. He’ll have a good impact on us. He is talented. He is tough. He is strong. He gives us a guy who can get the ball to the rim and make a play.”
Transfers have the ability to change programs quickly. The Pirates may lose 6-11 Deng Riak.
“It’s the way of the world right now,” Lebo said of the sheer volume of transfers.
The Pirates may bring in some transfers in an effort to offset some of the size they are losing.
Wichita State on AAC doorstep
Wichita State may be admitted to the AAC on the basis of a vote today.
“The only think I know is what I’ve read in the newspaper,” Leboi said. ” . . . Top 25 program, been to the Final Four. They’ve had tradition and history for a long, long time.”
No coaches convention
Lebo didn’t make it to the Final Four in Arizona.
“No, I didn’t,” he said. “I didn’t send my stuff back to the Final Four this year because I thought I was going to have my surgery when the season was over and I wouldn’t be able to go but I ended up having to have it earlier so I didn’t end up putting in for tickets and hotel and all that stuff at the beginning of the year.”
Lebo got to watch his son, Creighton, play as a freshman on the varsity at Greenville Rose.
“I did a little bit,” said the Pirates coach. “I did when I could. He loves to play. He loves the game. It was fun to watch my son play a little bit.”
The younger Lebo averaged 13.5 points for a Rampants team that went 15-11 overall and 6-6 in the Eastern Carolina 4-A/3-A Conference.
Outlook for next year
Although the Pirates will add some personnel before next season, there is a good deal of ability and experience returning in the backcourt.
“We should be very good in the backcourt,” Lebo said. “One, two and three, we should be good there. Four and five, we lost a lot of guys. That’s an area we’re going to have to get better. Jabari Craig (6-11 rising senior) is a guy who’s going to have to get a chance to play. He’s going to have to make a jump up in the offseason.
“Our league is so good. To be really good, we’ve got to be able to shoot the ball a little bit better. We’ve got to cut down on turnovers. We had some silly turnovers, playing a freshman at the point guard position. He was talented but he had a lot to learn. We’ll have good depth there. Kentrell Barkley has had two terrific years for us. We’ll have to replace Caleb White, who, offensively, was really up and down. He probably didn’t have the year shooting the ball that he would have liked, but he was a pretty solid defensive guy for us, an experienced guy. He played a lot of minutes. I had a lot of trust in him when he was on the floor. We’ll have to replace that.
“B.J. being healthy will be helpful to us obviously, too. So we’ll see what happens.”
Thoughts on Final Four
Lebo’s alma mater topped Gonzaga 71-65 for the NCAA championship.
“What’s nice is this year in the Final Four is to see the teams in it really have no one and dones,” Lebo said. “They’re all like experienced seniors who have stuck around. Gonzaga has them. Justin Jackson could have left last year. He stayed and really worked on his game, really helped himself this year. Gonzaga’s got a lot of older guys. South Carolina had seniors. . . . It’s not the one and done that you’ve seen. For me, that’s nice to see.”