View from the East
Friday, March 27, 2015

By Al Myatt

Al Myatt

Lebo eyes the path to the future

ECU basketball coach Jeff Lebo, pictured courtside in Williams Arena during the Pirates' first-ever victory over Cincinnati on Feb. 1, is focused on incrementally building the program into a contender in the American Athletic Conference and a competitor for postseason bids. (Photo by W.A. Myatt)



Lebo eyes the path to the future

Al MyattEast Carolina is sitting out the NCAA Tournament this year. No surprise there. The Pirates and the big dance have been incongruous terms but as the future unfolds for ECU basketball improvement is the intent. ... More from Al Myatt...



High Point downs Pirates

GREENVILLE — High Point scored five runs in the second inning and went on to a 13-2 win at East Carolina on Wednesday night. The Panthers (12-11) led 13-0 before ECU (16-10) tallied twice in the bottom of the eighth. Spencer Angelis went 3-for-5 as High Point outhit the hosts, 14-7. ... More...

Next: ECU vs. Memphis | Friday, 6:30 pm



Recruiting wars: Quarterbacks

The search by East Carolina's coaching staff to find the next Shane Carden is in full swing. But as spring practice unfolds in Greenville, the question facing the Pirates is whether the next Carden is already in the program or currently being recruited. ... More from Sammy Batten...



Gaffney lifts UNCW

WILMINGTON — Chris Gaffney's three-run homer in the second inning was the big blow as UNC-Wilmington topped East Carolina 4-2 at Brooks Field on Tuesday night. The blast to center field was the first round tripper of the season for the Seahawks catcher, who was batting seventh in the order. ... More...



Quirk of fate marks end of the road

East Carolina’s run in the Women’s National Invitational Tournament came to an abrupt end with a 69-65 loss to North Carolina State on Sunday. Irony flowed in this second round matchup. ... More from Brian Bailey...

Audio: The Brian Bailey Show

The Brian Bailey Show airs on Pirate Radio 1250 on Mondays at 6:30 p.m. Brian's show this week featured the "Second Chance with the Sweet 16" contest: Replay show...



VCU edges Pirates, 3-2

GREENVILLE — A throwing error by East Carolina catcher Tyler Watkins on a pickoff attempt allowed Virginia Commonwealth pinch runner Haiden Lamb to score the winning run from third base in the eighth inning on Sunday afternoon at Clark-LeClair Stadium. ... More...



East Carolina wins with big 8th

GREENVILLE — East Carolina scored six runs in the eighth inning to defeat Virginia Commonwealth 9-3 at Clark-LeClair Stadium on Saturday afternoon. Kirk Morgan (4-0) got the win in relief and also drove in two runs in the Pirates' big frame. ... More...



Rams rally past ECU

GREENVILLE — A leadoff triple by Cody Acker in the top of the ninth inning led to the go-ahead run for Virginia Commonwealth in a 4-3 win over East Carolina at Clark-LeClair Stadium on Friday night. ... More...



Ruff hip to spring ball

Al MyattEast Carolina football coach Ruffin McNeill has been recovering from hip replacement surgery in February as spring practice is scheduled to get started today. "Dr. Chris Hasty did a great job," McNeill said ... More from Al Myatt...


By Al Myatt
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East Carolina is sitting out the NCAA Tournament this year. No surprise there. The Pirates and the big dance have been incongruous terms but as the future unfolds for ECU basketball improvement is the intent.

Where that will lead and when the Pirates will get there are undetermined variables but coach Jeff Lebo is working to align the factors that produce success.

In ECU's first season in the American Athletic Conference, the Pirates were 14-19 overall and 6-12 in league play.

The conference transition was a competitive step up in basketball from Conference USA, which was no. 16 in the league ratings power index, to the AAC, which was No. 8.

Two AAC teams, Southern Methodist and Cincinnati, made the NCAA Tournament field.

At their best, ECU was good enough to beat the Bearcats 50-46 in Greenville on Feb. 1.

The Pirates also gave the Mustangs a competitive contest in the AAC Tournament, making 15 of 35 from behind the arc on March 13 in Hartford before falling, 74-68. ECU had a one-point lead going into the last five minutes.

On the other hand, host Cincinnati rolled to a 69-48 win over the Pirates on Jan. 6 and SMU was similarly dominant in a 77-54 win in Dallas against ECU on Jan. 17.

Those results point out the disparity between road and home performance for ECU. The Pirates were 11-5 in the supportive confines of Williams Arena at Minges Coliseum during the 2014-15 season but just 1-11 in road contests.

On neutral floors, ECU's record was 2-3.

As the Pirates look to improve, the road record is obviously an area to address.

"We won some games and were very competitive in most of our games," Lebo said. "We didn't have the record we would have liked on the road. I attribute that to two things I think you need to have on the road to win. You've got to be able to rebound and score in the paint. Those were areas that were challenges for us throughout the year."

The flip side of that situation is an ability to compete with virtually everyone at home. The two-game set with traditional power Memphis was another example of how much better the Pirates are in their building. After a 70-58 loss at Memphis on Jan. 28, ECU topped the Tigers 64-53 at home just 13 nights later. Being in a financial position to play more games in Greenville would certainly be a factor that would boost chances for success.

"We've made it a tough place to play," Lebo said. "You look at the teams in our league. We had 16 home games. I think a lot of teams in our league may have had 18. We've got to continue to try and play at home. It gives you the best chance to have a good record. It gives you the best chance to win. We've been a tough out here. Even the times we've lost, we've given everybody what they wanted here in Greenville. We've got I think a fun place to play. We've got a difficult place for people to come in and win.

"I think the one thing we did do this year was people in the league know you better bring it when you play East Carolina. You're not just going in there and win. I think a lot of people look at it and say, 'Oh there's East Carolina twice on the schedule, that's two Ws. We can walk in there and just win. I think we've established that that's not going to be the case. That's a good first step. We've got a lot more steps to make."

The home and away numbers certainly aren't peculiar to the Pirates. It's a phenomenon that exists across the board in all sports.

Scheduling is a continuing challenge.

"Financially, always trying to get those home games is difficult," Lebo said. "Being able to have the resources there. A lot of people — the Memphises, the UConns, some of the national programs, even Cincinnati a little bit — they won't even play on the road half the time. They'll play on neutral sites in the preseason. They very rarely have a lot of true road games, maybe one or two. That's something that we always have to consider when we're scheduling. It's difficult. People don't understand how difficult scheduling is. Typically, this time of year is when you start to work a lot on scheduling. Your phone starts to ring. Our phone's not ringing and that's a good sign. We're having to ding it out there and make the phone calls, figure out dates, to figure out who's interested, who has dates.

"The other thing I think is difficult for us is as we've moved into this new league we've got two more league games. We've got 18 league games versus 16. When you're at the top of the league, that's OK, because you're looking at it — that's two more games we don't have to buy. They're league games that we have a chance to win. But when you're at the bottom of the league, they're two more hard games, really hard games that's added to your league schedule from 16 to 18. That's a big difference."

It's more than a subtle step up for ECU, which was 17-17 overall in its last season in Conference USA in 2013-14 when the Pirates went 5-11 in their former league.

"We are better," Lebo said. "Our record might not show it but we're better. We're a better basketball team. We've got to continue to keep working and upgrading and keep moving it in the right direction."

Developing resources

As ECU made a run to the Tournament championship to conclude the 2012-13 season, it was not a coincidence that a $17 million practice facility was under construction. That facility is complete but continued commitment of resources is needed for the program to move forward.

"We've got to continue to invest in basketball," Lebo said. "We started that process with the practice facility but you look at what this league has. A lot of these things that they have we don't have but we can get. We've got to continue to invest in those things. We've got to continue yearly to have a vision for basketball. We've kind of moved consistently off the bottom of the league and try to get first to that middle part. Obviously, we've got to get better. We've got to be able to play better on the road. We've got to start to win a little bit more."

Basketball tradition is not something that generates any sort of awe at East Carolina. The Pirates have made the NCAA Tournament just twice, in 1972 after winning the Southern Conference Tournament and in 1993 after capturing the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament. The Pirates lost their first game on both occasions.

"A lot of these (AAC) teams have tradition and they have national tradition," Lebo said. "They have history. That's something that we don't have and we're slowly trying to just get better. These teams that we're playing have been national programs. National champions. Have been to Final Fours. They've been to countless NCAA Tournaments and they're used to for a long time of winning. That's a challenge. That's not easy to overcome but we have aspirations to slowly make dents in that. To do that, obviously, we've got to get better. We've got to continue to upgrade our program, continue to have maintenance on our program and commitment to basketball, like this league has. This is a basketball league.

"I was so disappointed when the NCAA selection showed that we didn't have at least three and Temple was probably the first team out. We should have had three, possibly four. I thought Tulsa was worthy of it, too. Our upgrade in this league has just been a huge jump for us. On a nightly basis, we're playing the Cincinnatis, Memphis, the UConns, SMUs. I mean it's difficult on a nightly basis in this league against those caliber of teams. Our guys really did really admirable. I think slowly over the course of time we're going to get better."

ECU's playing facility, which seats 8,000, underwent a major renovation prior to the 1994-95 season. There were improvements prior to this past season, which included new video displays, but keeping up with the Joneses in the AAC means continuing to add bells and whistles to that structure, too.

"Whatever it is," Lebo said. "Attacking our playing facility. Continuing to make upgrades to that to budgets to travel to recruiting to all the things that other people have, continuing to have maintenance with their program, staffing, all those things. I just think that's something that you have to stay on top of. You've got to constantly have maintenance on it, know what other people are doing and having a commitment to it. We've started that here. Basketball here was neglected. In my opinion it was neglected. In this new league, you can't neglect it. You've got to have maintenance on it and you've got to keep moving forward. That's what we intend to do."

Visibility increases

Being in the most competitive neighborhood in the ACC with Duke, North Carolina and N.C, State was long seen as a disadvantage for the Pirates in basketball because, for one reason, ECU was comparatively lacking in television exposure. That factor has been minimized with membership in the AAC. The new league's TV package showed ECU throughout its conference schedule.

"A lot of people, players and coaches, have seen us play a bunch," Lebo said. "I can't tell you how many people have watched us play. I can't tell you the value of that. Almost every game in conference play was televised. A lot of it was on a national stage so that certainly is very, very helpful to us. We haven't had that here in the past. We'd have sprinklings of a game here and there on television. Certainly not the exposure that an ESPN would bring to us or CBS College Sports. It's been helpful to get us out there and for people to see us and try to sell our program and university."

More experienced and talented personnel

In contrast to some recent seasons, the Pirates finished 2014-15 relatively healthy. Marshall Guilmette, who had been severely limited the previous two seasons by injuries, showed his potential as a 6-feet, 10-inch medical redshirt sophomore.

"We were healthy at the end but not at the beginning," Lebo said. "We had to play different people at the beginning. As those guys came back we had to figure out our rotations and who was going to be playing with new guys coming back. I don't think we really hit our stride until the middle of January when we kind of had everybody back and we got it going. We played pretty well at that time. ... We finally got at least healthy at the end of the season, the last quarter of the season at least. That was certainly helpful. We put our best players out there."

Guilmette was able to impact some games late in the year. His 3-pointer in overtime put ECU ahead to stay in an 81-80 win over Central Florida in the AAC Tournament.

"To develop you have to be out there," Lebo said. "Marshall made it through a few months of practice and games. I think he got better and obviously helped us in a lot of games, especially on the offensive end of the floor. His ability to shoot the ball from the perimeter really helped us in games. I thought he got better as he was able to stay on the floor. He hasn't developed like we would have liked to this point and the reason was because of his injuries he hadn't been able to be out on the floor consistently. He still hasn't had a whole year where he's been able to do that. Hopefully, next year will be the year."

The impact of wing guard B.J. Tyson was not anticipated but he averaged a team-high 12.5 points and made the AAC All-Freshmen team.

"B.J. had a great year," Lebo said. " ... He was a guy who scored the ball for us and gave us some athleticism in the backcourt. There are areas he's got to improve upon but he showed his ability in the open court. He can drive the ball, play above the rim. He missed a lot of the summer time because he was hurt but really kind of got into the flow. It was great to have a guy like him coming off the bench to give us a boost. Our bench production was really solid throughout the year and he was a big reason why."

The Pirates will have their top five scorers back next season including Terry Whisnant (12.3), Caleb White (12.3), Guilmette (6.2) and Michel-Ofik Nzege (5.8). There will generally be less teaching and more experience going into next season than this past year when six new players were indoctrinated.

The incoming talent next season includes Clarence Williams (6-9, 210), a promising big body from a strong junior college program at Trinity Valley Community College in Texas and Northern Durham star Kentrell Barkley (6-5, 185), one of the top-rated prospects in the state.

"Clarence Williams has a terrific upside," Lebo said. "He can block shots. He can run. He's got skills to shoot the ball from the perimeter and also score inside for us."

Barkley averaged 22.1 points, 10.5 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.1 blocks for a 19-8 Knights team that lost in the playoffs to eventual 4-A champion Garner.

"I love his toughness," Lebo said of Barkley. "We call him a junkyard dog. He does all the little things, the toughness things, that you need to win. That's something that we've got to upgrade, our physical, mental toughness. This league's full of guys that have that. I think he'll bring that element to us. He'll stick his nose in there to get the charge. He'll stick his nose in there to grab the rebound. He can bust out with it. He can score in a variety of ways. He just makes winning plays and he's used to winning. He will take a back seat to nobody. I love that attitude that he has. That will be really, I hope, infectious with our group."

Offseason work ahead

The Pirates have another offseason to develop. ECU will have a better idea of what it takes to be successful in AAC and ultimately to make it to the big dance.

"We've got to get stronger," Lebo said. "We've got to get quicker. We've got to be able to react a little bit better to things that happen quickly. Obviously, rebounding the ball. All those things I talked about kind of go into rebounding. That wasn't an area that we were very good in at all. I thought offensively we did some good things. We shot the ball from three pretty well. We found a way to defend that was I thought effective for us. I really don't want to play a lot of zone but I ended up having to this year because we thought that was the best way to defend. We tried to keep people out of foul trouble. Our man-to-man D was just not where it needed to be, especially at some crucial spots. That's something that we need to get better at.

"We were young this year. That's the biggest thing. We played a lot of sophomores and a lot of freshmen. We played a junior that didn't play last year in Terry Whisnant. We had a lot of inexperienced guys. You're looking at starting three sophomores and our leading scorer coming off the bench is a freshman. That's exciting. I think we've got some good young players but they're going to have to in this offseason — I always tell them — the offseason is when you become a better individual player. The season is when you become a better team. It's going to be really important.

"We'll take some time off . . . and take a deep breath and mentally and physically try to heal a little bit and then we'll be back at it the beginning of April."

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