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Slam Dunks No. 1
Friday, December 30, 2005

By Denny O'Brien

Attracting fans tough for East Carolina


Editor's Note:'s Denny O’Brien will check in during basketball season with a new hoops-centered column. If you find some of his opinions offensive, rest assured that he doesn’t care. He’s never been one to pull punches — and he doesn’t intend to start now.

Winning isn’t the biggest challenge Ricky Stokes is facing. Filling seats in Williams Arena at Minges Coliseum is.

Ten games into Stokes’ tenure at East Carolina, the Pirates have topped the 6,000 mark in attendance only once, and have failed to top 5,000 in four of their six home contests.

Attribute part of that to ECU’s 4-6 start that includes a pair of blowout losses to relative unknowns. A home schedule in which Gardner-Webb would be considered the headliner to date also hasn’t helped.

ECU rolls out ticket promotion for UNCW game ... More...

Though an old adage states that winning cures attendance woes, history suggests otherwise for East Carolina hoops. The Pirates routinely played in front of sparse crowds during one of their most successful stretches at the Division I level (’93-’97).

Ironically, the program's most profitable period at the turnstiles was during the Bill Herrion era — a six-season span ('99-'05) during which the Pirates failed to produce a single winning season. Credit that seeming anomaly to a home schedule that was loaded with traditional Conference USA powers.

That Herrion’s intensity on the sidelines appealed to fans didn’t hurt, but its importance paled in comparison to annual visits by the likes of Cincinnati, DePaul, Louisville, Marquette, and Memphis. The basketball gate during the latter stages of that period also likely benefited indirectly from declining success and waning interest in football prior to this past season.

With most of those former C-USA bullies now absent from the schedule, East Carolina welcomes few opponents with which its fans can identify. Aside from Memphis, none of the Pirates’ league foes rank highly on the must-see scale.

(No offense to Houston, UAB, or UTEP, but their hardwood histories, though solid, barely register with the average hoops fan in this state.)

The rejuvenated interest in football, coupled with ECU’s success in baseball, also has placed basketball in danger of again becoming merely a diversion. It’s not that farfetched to think that football Signing Day this year will generate more interest than a basketball showdown with Rice or SMU.

Is there a sure-fire antidote for Williams Arena’s epidemic of empty seats? Absolutely, but the cure isn’t exactly packaged in ready-to-take doses.

Stokes will have to build East Carolina into a program that consistently flirts with the 20-win plateau. And as long as the Pirates are members of C-USA, AD Terry Holland will have to finagle a few annual home games with nationally reputable non-league opponents.

Though unproven, that combination would appear to be ECU’s best attendance remedy.

Beast of a league

What’s the best conference in college basketball this season? So far, my vote goes to the Big East.

The Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) Top 50 is peppered with six Big East clubs, and that doesn’t include Louisville, which is ranked tenth in both major polls. Still undefeated, Connecticut and Villanova headline the bunch and are sniffing on the doorstep of No.1 should Duke falter.

Because of the Big East’s balance and depth, look for RPI's to improve dramatically once league play begins. At the very least, the Big East should score eight NCAA berths and top all conferences on Selection Sunday.

And depending on who wins the conference tournament in the Big Apple, it could flirt with double-digit bids.

Mike Tranghese may have configured a dud of a football conference, but he definitely created a hoops monster in the process.

Conference Pew-SA

Where the Big East clearly was the winner during the realignment process, C-USA stands as the obvious loser.

Though Memphis is a legit Final Four contender, there’s a decent chance that the Tigers will be C-USA’s lone representative at the Big Dance. With most computer models ranking the league just inside the Top 20 – behind ten traditional mid-major conferences – it would be difficult to justify more than one club getting the nod.

Houston (RPI 38) and UAB (RPI 84) stand to have the best shots at a bid, though the two have combined for less than a handful of quality wins — the Cougars beat LSU on Nov. 29 and Arizona on Dec. 3, while UAB pasted Oklahoma State Wednesday night. Both will need to add more of that to their NCAA résumés and finish with an RPI of 50 or better to deserve serious consideration.

That will be difficult given what the C-USA docket is likely to do to their strength of schedule.

The best way for C-USA to secure more NCAA consideration is for someone other than Memphis to take the conference tournament. Considering that it again will be held at the FedEx Forum, the odds of that aren’t favorable.

Sneak peak

March Madness may be over two months away, but this weekend does provide a few match-ups worth noting.

George Washington and N.C. State headline the weekend with a Top 20 showdown tonight in the RBC Center. The No. 12 Colonials are undefeated and already have knocked off Maryland.

While that one may be tube-worthy, Saturday’s showcase game between No. 22 Wisconsin and No. 23 Pittsburgh isn’t. The over/under on the half-court minded Badgers and Panthers couldn’t possibly top 80.

Your best bet on Saturday is a battle of former Cinderellas, Saint Joseph’s and Gonzaga. The Zags, fresh off a loss at Memphis, boast arguably the nation’s best player in versatile forward Adam Morrison.

He also gets style points for that trendy Abercrombie mop.

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02/23/2007 02:00:41 AM

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