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Pirate Notebook No. 171
Tuesday, January 20, 2004

By Denny O'Brien
Staff Writer and Columnist

Fans hold key to hoops success

CyberEast of New Bern

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Look for a familiar pattern as the second half of the season unfolds. That's my prediction for East Carolina, and it has nothing to do with its overall record.

On that, I suspect the Pirates will rebound and make a halfway decent run down the stretch. With so much of its success dependent upon the development of young guards, ECU's best efforts this season most likely are still ahead.

At some point, three-pointers and free throws will begin to fall with more regularity, which is all that has been missing from the equation the past two seasons. That is unless you count the dependably disconcerting number of no-shows in the stands once the bread-and-butter portion of the home schedule gets underway.

"We're not home again until the end of the month when we play DePaul, and who knows what our record is going to be in this league," Pirates coach Bill Herrion said last week. "When there's only 4,000 people in here — unfortunately, because it is only DePaul — we have to play hard that night.

"I know a lot of people are down on this basketball team. You can feel it. I've felt it since last Saturday at Charlotte. You walk around here and no one pays much attention to you. It's disappointing."

That has been the general cycle for Pirates basketball the past couple of seasons. Fans are somewhat enamored when the season begins, full engaged against high-profile foes, then largely disinterested during the final month.

By the time National Signing Day in football hits, focus shifts almost 100 percent to the ball that bounces funny. That has long been the culture at East Carolina and there is no evidence of the emphasis swaying.

Though there have been a few decent showings by fans this season, attendance at Pirates games has been sub-par by the standards of major programs. The fact that less than 5,000 showed for the Conference USA opener against a very good UAB squad is a prime indicator that the roundball sport still flies below the radar east of I-95.

All in all, fan support hasn't made the strides originally predicted when ECU joined C-USA, with the exception of the flashes of frenzy among students and boosters for visits from Louisville, Marquette, and Cincinnati. Take that aristocratic trio away and attendance by and large has mirrored the Pirates' days in the CAA.

True, there are a few die-hards who attend all games and can trace the program's lineage and struggles back to the Tom Quinn era. The sad reality, though, is that most Pirates fans could identify the past ten ACC champions much more easily than listing the two years over a span of more than three decades span that ECU has claimed a conference title.

Attribute that to the state's hardwood culture, which for decades has force-fed our televisions with an overabundance of ACC hoops. It would be no stretch to suggest that some still are enamored with the aura of Tobacco Road, despite the fact that ECU now offers a quality alternative.

Since Herrion hopped aboard, the level of play and intensity has increased significantly. Despite more obstacles than a Survivor immunity challenge, the Pirates coach has improved recruiting and produced a product that is competitive at a very high level.

Ten years ago, a Rick Pitino-coached Louisville club would have waltzed out of Greenville with a 30-point win. And had the gym been half empty last Thursday, perhaps U of L hangs a 20-point blowout on the Pirates on their home court.

That's how important a tough home atmosphere can be in college basketball. When full, Williams Arena at Minges Coliseum can be one of the most intimidating environments an opponent faces.

As the program moves forward, fan efforts on the magnitude of Thursday night will be essential to ECU's advancement up the league pecking order. Already without steep tradition in a hoops-crazed state, Herrion desperately will need a major selling point for recruits when the conference shakeups commence.

Athletes want to play where they will be revered, not breeze through school relatively unnoticed.

With only 7,500 seats, anything less than 90 percent capacity on a nightly basis shouldn't be too big a request for a constituency that claims to be the state's most passionate. Not only would it send the message that ECU is serious about basketball, it likely would manufacture an extra win or two per season.

Though East Carolina historically has encountered its share of roadblocks in basketball, it slowly is beginning to gain some advantages. In Herrion, the Pirates have a major talent on the bench who is starting to assemble the type of players who could elevate the program to high-major status.

All that's missing is a commitment in the stands. If East Carolina is to permanently shed its image as a basketball purgatory, it will take a united effort from the sixth man.

Improved quickness

Even though the Pirates are winless in four tries in C-USA play, Herrion is encouraged by the caliber of athletes he now puts on the floor.

That wasn't the case when ECU entered the league two seasons ago.

"I think two years ago when we first got into this league, there were nights when you would be on that sideline and think athletically we were overwhelmed," Herrion said. "The other team just had better athletes than we had — speed, quickness, quicker to the ball.

"I don't really feel that right now. UAB was a very athletic team. I don't think the gap was that wide. Yeah, we turned it over, we made some mistakes, we didn't make free throws."

But the Pirates are having little trouble getting to the free throw line, which Herrion attributes to their ability to attack to the basket.

"The biggest thing that we've had trouble with here at East Carolina the last couple of years in this league is we could never just dribble penetrate by anybody," Herrion said. "(Louisville) had a hard time guarding us.

"We didn't finish a lot around the bucket and missed some free throws. We missed some crucial front ends of one-and-ones. But you know, there are some positives."

In the zone

With forward Gabriel Mikulas out for the remainder of the season, ECU is shifting gears on defense. One less body in the low post will mean a greater emphasis on the zone, which could help keep the Pirates' big men out of foul trouble.

Ironically enough, Herrion began implementing more zone a few days prior to Mikulas' injury.

"We've really been working hard on zone the last three-four days in practice," Herrion said following the Louisville game. "I think as we move on here in Conference USA, we have to play more zone.

"We gambled (against Louisville). They hurt us with the three ball, but we had to give something up. When you play a team like that, something's got to give. We're going to play a lot more zone as we move on."

So far, so good. The Pirates held Louisville to 37 percent from the field, well below its average. Houston didn't fair much better, hitting only 39 percent of its shots.

Winning desire

Greg Vacek: Daily Web Headlines Roundup - 01.19
Denny O'Brien: Pirate Notebook No. 171 - 01.20
Fans hold key to hoops success
Bonesville: Updated Recruiting Thumbnails - 01.20
Bonesville: Updated AP Basketball Poll - 01.20
Nuggets: Notes from ECU and beyond - 01.20
Pirate Radio 1250 Audio: Press Box with Troy Dreyfus - 01.20
Panelists Brian Bailey, Jody Jones & Jim Gentry
Pirate Radio 1250 Audio: Locker Room with Kevin Monroe - 01.20
With Sean Farmer & guests Matt Graves & Courtney Willis
Cable 7 Audio: Brian Bailey Show - 01.20

Al Myatt: View from the East - 01.19
ECU football looks to Gators for 'strength'
Nuggets: Notes from ECU and beyond - 01.19
Bonesville: C-USA Standings & Scoreboard - 01.19
Keith LeClair: From The Dugout - 01.18

Pitch for pitch with Nick Schnabel
Bonesville: Cougs add chapter to Pirates' road hex - 01.18

Nuggets: Notes from ECU and beyond - 01.18

Frustrated over the Pirates' inability to get over the hump?

Just think how Herrion feels.

And unlike the fans, the Pirates coach can't afford to dwell over his team's five consecutive losses.

"If I don't keep the big picture in mind here, I'll go crazy," Herrion said. "If I'm going to just evaluate this basketball team based on (one) game, that's wrong.

"I want to win more than anybody in this room, anybody that was in that gym tonight. Trust me. Ask my wife how bad I want to win. She lives with me."

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02/23/2007 01:56:05 AM

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