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Pirate Notebook No. 464
Monday, April 4, 2011

Denny O'Brien

Lebo prods ECU hoops out of the wilderness

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

It was only a year ago that Terry Holland was the target of criticism from media and fans. I contributed more than my share.

Shortly before the deal was struck with current East Carolina hoops coach Jeff Lebo, I penned a column explicitly stating that hiring the former North Carolina point guard would be subject to significant scorn from Pirate Nation. His powder blue roots, coupled with mediocre results at Auburn, had me convinced that the move wouldn’t be met with much favor.

Initially I was right.

Many didn’t like the notion of a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate leading the ECU hoops program. After all, Lebo’s alma mater has historically been the political thorn in East Carolina’s side.

You could certainly understand the hesitation to accept him.

Others couldn’t get past the fact that Holland pursued a “retread,” a recently fired coach in need of a program to rehabilitate his career. It seemed contradictory given the statements the Pirates’ AD made during the search to replace former football coach Skip Holtz.

To be specific, a recycled coach would not be targeted during that process.

Some, including me, also believed Holland should have aggressively pursued more successful coaches who had indicated an interest in the opening. Current Clemson coach Brad Brownell immediately comes to mind.

Add it all together and hiring Lebo seemed a risk at a time when ECU had all but flatlined. Fast-forward to today and the Pirates have suddenly discovered a basketball pulse.

Credit Holland for staying the course and not caving to popular opinion. His decision to hire Lebo is more than paying off.

In his inaugural season, Lebo took a team light on size and offensive firepower and somehow squeezed 18 victories and a postseason berth out of it. Along the way he knocked off both the Conference USA regular season (UAB) and tournament (Memphis) champions with a roster that easily was among the bottom third of the league in talent.

What’s more, some of the most talented players on ECU’s roster had fallen well short of reaching their potential prior to Lebo’s arrival. Forward Darrius Morrow had yet to develop the work ethic necessary to be consistent at the major college level, while Jontae Sherrod and Brock Young had previously put themselves ahead of their team.

But Lebo got that trio to embrace hard work, as well as their roles. Rarely did you see them — or anyone else on the roster — loafing down the court or attempting to play outside of how they were instructed.

That’s just one reason to feel good about the Pirates’ future.

Another is the recent success by non-traditional powers in the NCAA tournament. Final Four runs by Virginia Commonwealth and Butler, which a decade ago wouldn’t have happened, give hope to schools lacking much historical success.

Since the NBA adopted the ‘one-and-done’ draft rule, the bluebloods have suffered from major attrition. Players who have the talent to bypass college now must spend at least a year there before they can go pro.

The result has created a revolving door for the programs that typically attract blue-chip talent. That abundance of youth, while talented, has proven to struggle against those 2nd-tier basketball schools that are able to keep players for a full four-year cycle.

Considering that East Carolina’s recruiting base is more on par with Virginia Commonwealth than Kansas, the Pirates are unlikely to experience any early exits outside of the occasional transfer. As a result, ECU should be able to establish both stability and chemistry throughout the program.

It has been void of both since Joe Dooley was ousted in the late '90s.

Given C-USA’s steady decline in recent years, there is no reason the Pirates can’t quickly become a regular contender under Lebo’s watch. With John Calipari no longer at Memphis, the league no longer has a national contender — or one that is even remotely close — meaning ECU can now make the NCAA Tournament a reasonable goal.

So long as Lebo is the coach.

If Lebo strings together a pair of 20-win campaigns, rest assured he will be a target for bigger programs. But that type of attention wouldn’t be such a bad thing for ECU hoops.

Should East Carolina post consecutive 20-win seasons, I’m guessing Pirates fans would welcome the tradeoff. Thanks to Holtz, they’ve developed the necessary skills to cope with that process.

And thanks to Holland, ECU basketball finally has something other programs might eventually want.

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04/04/2011 03:23 AM

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