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Pirate Notebook No. 339
Monday, March 17, 2008

By Denny O'Brien

NCAA brackets instructive for ECU

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

East Carolina should find encouragement in the results from Selection Sunday.

The Pirates certainly didnít find themselves bracketed in the field of 65, but neither did anyone else in Conference USA aside from Memphis, the South Region's top seed.

That has become the standard since the exodus of Cincinnati, Louisville, Marquette and friends to the Big East, and it reinforces an important, yet rarely discussed notion: ECU resides in a league where it can succeed given the right coach and resources.

Itís actually a scenario weíve witnessed during brief periods in the past. Though punch lines are often attached to ECUís hoops history, there are examples of when the Pirates were a representative hardwood bunch.

Take the mid-90's. ECU won 17 or more games and finished at least .500 in the Colonial Athletic Association for three consecutive seasons, highlighted by an 18-11 mark during the final year of Eddie Payneís tenure.

Joe Dooley followed that with consecutive 17-win campaigns that built a lot of momentum on the recruiting trail. But then-athletics director Mike Hamrick impulsively ended the Dooley era before he had the opportunity to advance the program with some of his more prized recruits.

It was a program-defining moment from which East Carolina has yet to recover.

While itís tempting to insist that the Colonial then hardly measures competitively to C-USA now, a closer examination of the two suggests otherwise. C-USA may offer more pronounced logistical challenges, but there isnít an intimidating program in the bunch outside of Memphis.

Todayís version of UAB and Houston isnít much different than yesterdayís Old Dominion and James Madison. And if you think Rice or Southern Methodist would finish much higher than the cellar in the old CAA, a crash course in hoops history is highly recommended.

Bottom line: If ECU could consistently compete in its old conference home, thereís no reason to believe it couldnít in its current one.

The challenge is finding the right coach who can draft a winning blueprint, and granting him enough time to fully implement it.

Just a few days removed from the seasonís conclusion, itís unclear whether or not AD Terry Holland has identified interim coach Mack McCarthy as the long-term solution or if a clean sweep of the program will take place.

If the latter is the case, there are a couple of routes that seem logical given the Piratesí current positioning. Either a reputable basketball sage whoís won amid comparable challenges Ė of which there are many Ė or a hungry assistant with strong recruiting connections seem like sensible solutions.

Regardless of the choice, the administration and fan base should provide the next coach with enough security and monetary resources to mold ECU into a competitive outfit. Upgrades in both recruiting and facilities are a necessity for that.

That ECU is completely outmanned physically against most C-USA opponents is a strong testament to how shorthanded the Pirates are. The fact that the menís basketball program must jockey for practice time in Williams Arena is a sad commentary on the sportís lack of emphasis historically.

But thereís no reason both deficiencies canít change, and the right coach can help on both fronts.

He can certainly execute a successful recruiting strategy that will lure skilled, physically tough post players to address the Piratesí glaring weaknesses down low. He can also mobilize the fan base to invest in any capital campaign that might help subsidize a basketball-only practice facility.

Then thereís C-USA. The right coach can certainly navigate the tame waters that exist throughout most of this one-bid league and consistently compete in the upper half of it.

Thereís no reason ECUís administration and fans should expect anything less than that.

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03/17/2008 01:15:30 AM

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