East Carolina’s basketball season effectively ended on December 22, the day the school announced it had hired a search firm to help a newly formed a committee look for its next coach.
There was little to no chance that interim coach Michael Perry was going to get the job on a permanent basis anyway, so the move wasn’t unexpected or premature. It’s just that by going public with the news when it did, ECU effectively told its team that it was officially playing out the string for the the American Athletic Conference portion of the schedule.
Sunday afternoon at Minges Coliseum, the Pirates looked like a team that was doing just that.
They made just 17 of 57 shots from the floor, a 29.8 percentage that was their worst of the year, and failed to reach the 50-point mark for the second time in their last five games.
On the other end of the court, their defensive effort, or lack thereof, was best summed up by an early second-half stretch in which Houston’s Corey Davis Jr. was left wide open for 3-point baskets on three straight possessions. He made each of them to help the Cougars build a 30-point lead on their way to an all-too-familiar 65-49 rout.
As ugly as the loss might have been, it was hardly unexpected. Houston, like Wichita State three days earlier, is one of the top teams in the AAC. But regardless of the competition, it’s hard to imagine ECU (7-10 overall, 1-5 in the league) picking up many more wins from now until the season officially and mercifully ends in early March.
So rather than lamenting about things that can’t be changed, let’s take a look ahead to what the Pirates new coach — whoever he might be — will have at his disposal to begin the foundation of a program both Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall and Houston’s Kelvin Sampson agree can succeed under the right set of circumstances.
Projecting a college basketball roster a year in advance is always a tricky proposition given the turnover that has become the norm these days, especially when a coaching change is involved. But if everyone that can come back does, including academically ineligible Jeremy Sheppard, the Pirates will enter 2018-19 with 10 players on scholarship.
With four players already signed by former coach Jeff Lebo — leaving ECU one above the NCAA limit — the incoming coach might have to wait one full recruiting cycle before having any chance at changing the personality and improving the talent level of the program barring any departures other than seniors B.J. Tyson, Jabari Craig and Aaron Jackson.
Those eligible to return can be broken down into four groups. They are:
- The upperclassmen >> Kentrell Barkley and Isaac Fleming are the second- and third-leading scorers on this year’s team and figure to be leaders again in 2018-19. But because they have just one season remaining, they can only be counted on as a bridge to the future rather than part of the program’s long-term future. The same can be said for deep reserves Usman Haruna and Justice Obasohan.
- The building blocks >> This is a group led by Virginia Tech transfer Seth LeDay, a talented 6-foot-6 wing who will have two years of eligibility remaining after being forced to sit out the current season because of an unfavorable NCAA ruling. Big man Dimitri Spasojevic and sixth man Shawn Williams, both of whom have shown flashes of promise during their freshman campaigns, also fit into this category.
- The unknowns >> Current freshmen K.J. Davis and Justin Whatley have not gotten a chance to show what they can do and may or may not fit into a new coach’s plans. Then there’s the four incoming recruits — Jayden Gardner, Rico Quinton, DeShaun Wade and Mike Wynn — assuming any or all actually arrive as scheduled.
- The wild card >> Point guard Sheppard is arguably the most talented piece to the puzzle and the kind of player that makes everyone around him better. But because of his iffy academic standing, it’s anybody’s guess as to whether the 2017 All-AAC Rookie Team selection will be available.
The good news in this equation is that at least some attrition is inevitable. It’s become something of an annual tradition for the Pirates, with nine players having transferred to other schools over the past five years.
Though retention and continuity are usually desired commodities for any college sports program, a significant housecleaning wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen under the current circumstances. The more scholarships that are available, the faster ECU can break with its losing past and begin the process of building a winner.
It’s a process that has already begun with the decision to look outside the program for its next leader.