Jeff Lebo never had a season like 2016-17 in his 18 years as a head coach.
He took a leave of absence in January for a hip replacement, returning for practices but remaining out of action for games with assistant Michael Perry assuming the role of interim head coach.
The surgery was successful and Lebo is back in an active role for his seventh season at ECU.
“I was in pain for two years,” said the Pirates coach. “I didn’t know what it was the first year. It not only affects your ability to do your job, it affects your life.
“It affects every part of what you do on a daily basis, as far as sleeping, as far as walking, as far as sitting, anything you could think of.
“So I’m glad it’s behind me. It’s helped me tremendously in the quality of life. … I feel great. I’m able to walk, able to bend, able to sit in a chair, I’m able to sleep at night. I’m able to move. I’m able to do all those things. That procedure is a life-changing thing for those who have had hip pain.
“I don’t know how they did it in the old days. The pain is excruciating at different times. It’s hard to explain unless you’ve had it.”
Guard B.J. Tyson and frontcourt performer Jabari Craig are the only seniors for the Pirates, who were 15-18 overall last season and 6-12 in the American Athletic Conference.
Tyson missed seven games due to injury and was not as effective upon returning. He was ECU’s leading scorer at 11.9 points per game before he was sidelined in mid-January. He finished the year with a 9.6 average.
“He’s healthy right now,” Lebo said. “It’s trying to get him consistently through practice, which he’s been able to do. We’ve just got to keep an eye on him and make sure that he can be consistent every single day, which he’s been able to do. He’s an important guy for us. I felt bad for him last year because of the timing of his injury — where we were in the season and how long he had to be out. That is something really difficult to come back from.
“He’s working hard in the training room, trying to stay on top of everything. We’ve just got to keep an eye on him and hopefully he’ll be able to make it through the whole year, injury free.
The NCAA has yet to rule on the eligibility of Seth LeDay, a 6-feet, 7-inch transfer from Virginia Tech. His older brother, Zach LeDay, transferred from South Florida and was a standout for the Hokies.
Kentrell Barkley, a 6-5 swingman who averaged a team-high 13.2 points as a sophomore, and guard Jeremy Sheppard, who averaged 9.2 points as a freshman, are among the top returners.
“In the backcourt, we’ve got some experienced guys,” Lebo said. “That’s where our experience lies at the 1, 2 and 3. We’ve got some depth there at the 1, 2 and 3.
“Our 4 and 5 positions are going to be new — new guys, inexperienced players, so those are the areas where we’ve got to have somebody step forward and be consistent for us. We lost a lot there, a lot of older guys, a lot of experience guys there.”
The Pirates made 39.8 percent of their field goal attempts last season, including 32 percent beyond the arc. ECU hit 65.7 percent at the line.
“Our shooting has got to get better,” Lebo said. “We struggled in that area this past season. That’s an area we’ve got to shore up. We’ve got to be able to make open jump shots. We’ve got to be able to count on a couple of guys being able to make those things.”
Andre Washington had 95 blocked shots in one season as a graduate transfer.
“Last year, I thought our rebounding and defense were much better,” Lebo said. “A lot of that had to do with Andre back there. That was the first time we’ve had that kind of shot blocker, which he was an elite shot blocker back there. We’ll have to make an adjustment, obviously, not having that kind of player back there. He blocked a lot of shots but he made a lot of other people miss. That’s something that we’re not going to have there that we’re going to have to make up for.
“On the ball defense, I think we should be pretty solid there, maybe be a little bit better guarding the ball. The next thing will be the physicality of rebounding the basketball consistently, night in and night out.
“With those new guys inside, that’s something we’ve got to continue to work on and get better at.”
Hawaii transfer Isaac Fleming averaged 9.5 points in two seasons before sitting out at ECU last year. He has the most experience among a large group of new players in the program.
“Isaac’s talented,” Lebo said. “He can play the one. He can play the two. He’s a physical guard. He’s a good driver. He’s a good passer. He can guard the ball. He’s an experienced guy that brings some physicality and toughness to the point guard position and can play the two guard.
“Because of his size, he can guard a bigger, stronger two guard and not have any problem there.”
Exhibitions in Chapel Hill
The Pirates will join UNC-Greensboro, UNC-Wilmington and host North Carolina in scrimmages for hurricane relief on Sunday, Nov. 5, at 3 p.m.
“Coach [Roy] Williams (UNC-Chapel Hill) had called me to kind of discuss his idea,” Lebo said. “I thought it was a great idea. I appreciate him thinking of us. I thought it was not only great for the people affected by the hurricanes in getting some help financially, but also we’re in an area here where we get affected by hurricanes all the time. We rely on the help of other people to help us when we go through those things.
“I thought it was a great thing for us to be able to participate in, also great for our players to participate in it and get a chance to go over there — play in front of people, even though it’s going to be a unique format. I think it’s a great thing and fun thing, something our guys are looking forward to. When I told them, they were really looking forward to it.”
Each team will scrimmage for a total of 40 minutes against the other three teams.
The Pirates host UNCW on Nov. 30.
Lebo added Doug Wojcik to the coaching staff after Mike Netti took a position at Ohio State.
“We’re real excited about Coach Wojcik,” Lebo said. “He’s an experienced coach. He’s been a head coach. He’s been an assistant at four elite programs — Notre Dame, North Carolina, Michigan State and Gonzaga. You don’t get any higher than that. He’s been the winningest coach in Tulsa history. Also, head coach at College of Charleston.
“He’s a guy that’s won, a guy that’s been a head coach, understands the daily grind of it all. He’s been a good friend of mine for a long time. We’re elated to have his experience and having a new set of eyes here.
“We’re very proud of coach Netti. He had a chance to go to Ohio State, one of the elite basketball programs in the country. We’re happy for him and excited about Doug joining our staff.”
ECU opens the season on Sunday, Nov. 12, at 5 p.m. against Coppin State. It will be the first of 10 home games among 11 nonconference contests.
“We’ve got a lot of home games, which is good,” Lebo said. “That’s something that we wanted to try to attack. We’ve got games against in-state teams. You’ve got Campbell (Dec. 4). You’ve got Wilmington, which a lot of people like that series. Charlotte (Dec. 18). There are teams that we’ve played in the past that are in-state teams.
“There’s a trip to Rutgers (Nov. 24), a Big Ten school. We get a chance to play on that stage. There are not a lot of road games early.
“Our travel, once we get into the season, is very, very difficult for us because of where we’re located and how spread out the league is. Those home games over the first part of the season here are good for us to kind of preserve our energy a little bit.
“When we go into conference, it’s tough. It’s a grind once you get there.”
Preseason pick in the American
ECU has been picked 11th among 12 teams in the AAC preseason poll.
“I don’t think any of the coaches really put much emphasis on it,” Lebo said. “I really don’t even think of it. Somebody said it and I didn’t even respond to it.
“All that matters is at the end, so that’s what we’re fighting for right now and maybe we can prove some people wrong.”