Going for twoPublished 7:40pm Wednesday, November 9, 2011
GREENVILLE — Can they do it again? That’s the big question for the Pirates basketball team as it looks to string together back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since recording four straight from 1993-1997 as members of the Colonial Athletic Association.
Last year, first-year head coach Jeff Lebo was able to lead ECU to a winning season for the first time since that four-year stretch and now faces the challenge of trying to do it again.
Lebo said for that to happen his team must improve on defense.
“Hopefully we can build defensively,” Lebo said. “I think we need to get better at defensive rebounding. Last year we were one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the conference and in the country. We fouled too much last year and we put people on the foul line, so defensively we have to clean up those areas for us to go where we want to go.”
A year ago the Pirates were able to post an 18-16 (10-8 Conference USA) record and made school history by earning its first- and second-ever Conference USA tournament victories.
East Carolina’s late season success was fueled by the improvement of 6-8 F/C Darrius Morrow, who posted 13 points and 6.5 rebounds a game to give the team a reliable scoring option in the paint. On top of that, ECU also had sharpshooters like Jamar Abrams and Jontae Sherrod to go along with point guard Brock Young, who became the school’s all-time assist leader.
That trio is no longer around and the team is hoping that some of the new faces like transfers Miguel Paul and Shamarr Bowden can mix in with some of the old faces like Erin Straughn and Corvonn Gains to help replace the lost production.
“Offensively we want to go through Darrius and we got a perimeter guy in Miguel; we’ll have to share the wealth in a lot of ways,” Lebo said. “We will hopefully have a decent inside-out game. When we started (preseason training) I thought we would be a better shooting team in some other spots and I haven’t seen that yet in practice. … We have to make open shots.”
Morrow’s 2010-11 efforts have earned him a spot on the preseason all-conference second-team heading into the 2011-12 season and the senior said his goal is for the team to keep improving.
“The goal is always to win,” Morrow said. “We just want to go as far as we can take it. As long as we play as a team I think the sky is the limit for us.”
The Pirates will begin the season Friday night against Milligan, an NAIA team from Tennessee, and on Wednesday Lebo stressed the importance of not looking past the Buffaloes.
“I don’t care who you are playing, whether you know them or not anything can happen on a given night in this game,” Lebo said.
While the East Carolina football team is touted for scheduling extremely tough opponents, that has not always been the case for the basketball team.
This year’s schedule includes games against non-Division I programs like Milligan, Appalachian State and Chowan and UVa.-Wise. The Pirates will play 13 non-conference opponents this year whose combined record is 188-208.
Lebo said that upgrading the schedule is a work in progress.
“They don’t want to come in here and play us, we’re working on that,” Lebo said. “It’s become increasingly difficult to get somebody to come on the road to play.
“You see the big (programs) will play at home and buy you at home and play on neutral sites against other quality opponents the rest of the time. That’s been the philosophy of a lot of people. We are able to get a quality scrimmage but not a quality opponent to come here to play. We call everybody, we talk to everybody.”
The coach said there are several factors that work against the Pirates being able to schedule a big time team at Minges Coliseum.
“I think one: hopefully it’s because we are getting better; two: It’s a hard place to get to and three: they don’t need to, what do they have to gain by it.
“I was there, I was at that level before and what do they have (to gain)? Some of those places are going to give up a home gate where they would make $1 million at home to play on the road for nothing. So financially it becomes an issue too.”
Another issue the Pirates will face is trying to replace Young, whose fearless slashing to the basket style led to a lot of open looks for his teammates. Looking to grab the reigns will be juniors Gaines and Paul.
“We got Corvonn, who is always been a solid point guard, and Miguel who is kind of a combo-guard at point and they’re both good passers,” Morrow said. “I just think as a team we can probably make up for Brock’s assists. We probably won’t have just one person dominating the assists like Brock.”
The Pirates would like to have a group effort in the paint as well and will rely on transfers Maurice Kemp (6-8, 185) and Austin Steed (6-8, 245), along with sophomores Robert Sampson (6-8, 215) and Darius Morales (6-8, 220) to get the job done.
“Austin Steed has been doing good scoring and Darius Morales has been working on his jump hooks,” Morrow said.
Morrow was thrilled to be able to throw some water on the school’s winning record drought and is looking forward to trying to do the same this year.
“It would be great, I’m not sure when the Pirates have had back-to-back winning seasons but if I could be a part of that, that’s all I can ask for.”