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Pirate Notebook No. 348
Monday, June 30, 2008

By Denny O'Brien

Coach Mack on the right track

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

It isn’t easy to quantify East Carolina’s exact position in the hierarchy of Division I basketball. By most measures, it certainly resides much closer to the bottom than the top.

When you rank the land’s most difficult coaching jobs, ECU almost always is mentioned by the region’s most knowledgeable hoops analysts. To support their position, they often point to the many historical factors working against the Pirates.

The first is history itself. ECU has never amounted to much on the hardwood, so the general bipartisan consensus is that it probably never will.

Another is location. Hardly more than a three-pointer away from the national epicenter for college hoops, it’s hard to garner much attention or respect when your neighbors comprise the highest positions in basketball’s aristocracy.

Then there’s priority, on which East Carolina has never placed much emphasis on hoops in its athletics history. Football has and always will command more attention, but the argument can be made that even ECU baseball has more diehard supporters than its more humble basketball brethren.

Not that any of this is new territory. Each argument has been bantered in the press, on radio call-in shows, and in much greater detail on Internet message boards.

Most supporters insist that they are excuses that ECU has used as a convenient crutch. But are they?

That’s the question new Pirates coach Mack McCarthy is tasked with answering, and almost every man who has previously held his position has done so unfavorably. Eddie Payne and Joe Dooley are, to a certain degree, exceptions, though neither elevated East Carolina beyond the 18-win plateau.

And under both regimes, any measure of success was short-lived. So why should life with Coach Mack be any different?

For starters, there’s a track record for success at non-traditional powers in the Southeast. Neither Chattanooga nor Virginia Commonwealth is considered basketball royalty, but both were highly-respected programs that were feared nationally under McCarthy’s direction.

Then there’s the résumé that he is beginning to establish in Greenville. He already has proven himself a sound technician of in-game strategy as witnessed during surprising victories over talented N.C. State and Houston clubs.

“Sidney’s (Lowe) really good at adjusting,” McCarthy said following the Pirates victory over State in December. “If you show him the same thing twice, he’ll eat you alive – the same match-up, the same defense.

“So, we tried to change constantly to give them different looks, different match-ups. We even had some bad match-ups out there at times just because we didn’t want to give him the same look any two times.”

While McCarthy’s ability to dictate a game’s outcome with a clipboard has never been questioned, his ability to manage the other areas of a program at ECU’s level has.

Bottom line, many questioned his ability to recruit the caliber of talent required to elevate the Pirates to respectability.

Many – me included – felt East Carolina needed an energetic up-and-comer who could tirelessly work the AAU circuit. It’s a template that has brought tremendous improvement to Tulane and Tulsa, two programs that struggled in recent years before the arrival of their current coaches.

On second thought, maybe ECU ultimately needed a shrewd basketball sage who knows where to uncover the hidden recruiting gems. Because it appears that McCarthy has done just that.

A recruiting class that features bruiser Darius Morrow, slasher Chris Turner, and floor general Chris Kupets would be considered outstanding at East Carolina regardless of the circumstances. But for McCarthy to compile this caliber of talent with such a short runway would have to rank it among the best recruiting efforts in ECU hoops history.

That statement is magnified by the fact that Morrow originally committed to South Carolina, Turner to Oregon State, and Houston offered Kupets the week before he signed with the Pirates.

Now, their presence on the East Carolina roster won’t guarantee success. History alone suggests that any enthusiasm should be tempered by the reality that the Pirates have never amounted to much more than a punch line on the hardwood.

But the quick results that have occurred since McCarthy’s hiring are encouraging. Perhaps East Carolina has indeed found the remedy for its long-suffering in hoops.

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06/30/2008 01:36:18 AM

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