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Pirate Notebook No. 227
Tuesday, February 1, 2005

By Denny O'Brien
Staff Writer and Columnist

League reshuffling a net plus for ECU hoops

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Better days lie ahead for East Carolina's basketball program. That was the mantra that preceded the Pirates' transition into Conference USA.

To a certain degree, that sentiment proved prophetic. With a dynamite portfolio of programs, C-USA inclusion ignited a fan base that for years suffered the harmful side effects of membership in the Colonial Athletic Association.

A middle-of-the-road league, the CAA was a popular punchline when discussing ECU hoops. Even though the Pirates experienced moderate success under Eddie Payne and Joe Dooley, it often was undermined by their conference affiliation.

By the same token, East Carolina received an immediate image makeover when it plunged into C-USA. That the schedule was remodeled with a buffet of powerhouses was enough to remove some of the stereotypes produced largely by the company the Pirates previously kept.

Now with another major overhaul to its conference membership on the horizon, East Carolina again must examine its basketball identity.

No question, the exodus of Charlotte, Cincinnati, Louisville and Co. will have a negative impact on the league's image quotient. Without them, Memphis is the only remaining program that is a legitimate box office hit in a sport that historically has drawn poorly at ECU.

Memphis has longstanding tradition, a first-class facility, passionate fans, and a celebrity coach. Save for a handful of leagues, the Tigers have the credentials to be top cats in almost any conference.

But aside from Memphis, the new-look C-USA lacks another consistent power. UAB, Texas-El Paso, and Tulsa have shown flashes of brilliance, but have not exhibited the staying power to be considered elite.

And that's good for ECU.

"I keep saying that, even though when we were losing, I think we're a good basketball team that has gone through a very, very difficult stretch of games," Pirates coach Bill Herrion said after ECU's 54-51 upset win over Charlotte Saturday. "That thing was a war out there today. I mean, just a physical battle for 40 minutes.

"But you know what? We have no choice. We have to play like that every single game to even give ourselves a chance to win in this league."

It has been the resounding theme of East Carolina's brief existence in C-USA. Aside from only a few match-ups, the Pirates have been a clear underdog who needed near perfection to even compete against most of their conference brethren.

That typically is the case when you consistently face opponents with superior personnel. The Pirates certainly have been no exception, with the majority of their league wins the result of effort and desire, not talent.

When that's the scenario, maintaining any semblance of consistency can be too big a request.

In the new C-USA, the task will be more manageable. Instead of facing a gauntlet of clubs stacked with blue chip talent, East Carolina will match up more favorably on a nightly basis.

As a result, the win column should receive a boost.

But that isn't going to solve all of ECU's hardwood troubles.

At season's end, Pirates athletics director Terry Holland must make a definitive statement about Herrion's future. Holland should either provide Herrion with a glowing endorsement and extension or part ways and pursue a new coach.

Anything in between could handicap recruiting potential and impede progress.

Once personnel decisions have occurred, the schedule should be addressed. With the travel challenges of C-USA, slating non-conference opponents within driving distance will be paramount to foster regional exposure and keep costs at a minimum.

Rekindling rivalries with UNC-Wilmington, Richmond, and Virginia Commonwealth would seem to make sense. So would a sprinkling of annual games with geographically logical opponents from the ACC, SEC, and even the Big East.

Pursuing the latter would help compensate for the strength of schedule hit the new C-USA will cause — which is a much better scenario than the one in which East Carolina has struggled over the last four years.

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02/23/2007 01:59:31 AM

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