Monitoring the trends at Minges

Published 6:53 pm Tuesday, December 30, 2008

By By Brian Haines, Sports Writer
After starting out the season on fire, East Carolina has suddenly cooled off, and the timing couldn’t be worse.
Only a week away from their Conference USA opener against Tulane, the water underneath the Pirates’ ship has started to get a bit choppy.
On Dec. 17 the Pirates rode into the RBC center with a five game winning streak in hand, but left it in Raleigh where they fell to N.C. State 76-87. East Carolina returned to Minges Coliseum for its next game only to get overmatched by No. 6 Wake Forest 95-54.
The Pirates had five days to recover from its loss to the Deacons, but fell flat on Sunday when they managed only 55 points against Coastal Carolina, who edged them out with 63.
While ECU football fans spent the holiday vacation giddy with Liberty Bowl anticipation, Pirates’ hoops fans’ lasting memory over the break was their team’s second half collapse against Wake Forest, where the team decided to go on vacation a little bit early and got out-scored by the Deacons 54-17 in the final 20 minutes.
But it shouldn’t have been, and it’s still a little early to press that purple panic button.
What the East Carolina faithful should focus on is the fact that for the first time in a long time, the Pirates returned from the break with an 8-3 record, and was tied for second in Conference USA, and a half game ahead of Memphis (7-3)
You did not read that incorrectly.
A third of the way into the season, East Carolina had a better record than last year’s NCAA runners up Memphis Tigers.
It should be noted that Memphis has played a hard-hitting non-conference schedule, but even the Pirate-friendly, gambling-loving Charles Barkley would not have bet, no matter what the odds, that by Dec. 25, ECU would have been second in the conference with a better record than John Calapari’s crew.
ECU coach Mack McCarthy captured the sentiment perfectly while addressing his team after the loss to Wake Forest.
After 12 games some noticeably trends are starting to emerge, both good and bad.
Most importantly, this team is a quite a bit better than expected. The Pirates headed into the season losing two of its top post players from last years team when John Fields and Gabe Blair (remember them) transferred after their sophomore seasons.
The duo of Chad Wynn and Darrius Morrow has done a nice job in their absence.
Wynn, the 6-10 sophomore, has shown signs of promise as he is currently averaging eight points a night while pulling down four rebounds a game.
Morrow, the 6-8 freshman, has surpassed expectations with his 10 points per game average and eight boards a night.
Wynn’s game and shooting touch has shown improvement, but he still has a long way to go on the defensive end, where he is in foul trouble on a nightly basis which has limited him to only 20 minutes per game.
Also, it is clear that despite his hard work in the weight room during the off season, Wynn still needs to bulk up a bit more.
Wynn’s importance to the team can not be overstated. When he is a scoring option on the block it opens up the offense for shooters like Hinnant (16 ppg) and James Legan (14 ppg), and makes the offense really tough to defend.
Playing against the big boys in the ACC, it was evident that Wynn needs to add more strength and learn how to play physical without fouling.
Wynn also needs to provide more of a shot-altering presence in the paint. His 1.3 blocks a contest is not too bad (ninth in the conference), but he needs to do a better job with his help defense and really make his presence felt by penetrating guards.
He doesn’t have to block shots necessarily, just change them.
Wynn’s partner in the paint has done a really nice job of becoming a scoring option, and proved he can step up against big-time teams.
In 15 minutes of play against N.C. State, Morrow pulled down eight boards and added six points. Those numbers would have been higher had he not fouled out.
Against the tall, athletic frontcourt of the Deacons, Morrow led the team with 15 points and missed recording his fourth double-double by one rebound.
Not bad for a rookie.
While the tandem of Wynn and Morrow has been respectable, the Pirates lack of depth has been completely exposed. Simply put, they need more big bodies, and unless there was a seven-footer under Mack McCarthy’s Christmas tree, East Carolina’s going to have to ride on the back of its two big men for the rest of the season.
Another area of concern for the Pirates is that nobody has stepped up to become the second-scorer behind Hinnant .
Legan has had a few nice nights, and freshman Brock Young proved he is capable of putting up points when he scored a career-high 25 against the Wolfpack. However, nobody has consistently made teams pay for loading up on Hinnant.
That is a major concern heading into conference play.
East Carolina’s lack of a create-your-own-shot player has become so apparent in recent games. Hinnant was able to get to the rim against the weaker non-conference team’s on the schedule, but that has not been seen against the stiffer competition.
The big question that must be answered by Jan. 7 is who is going to be the guy that when the shot-clock is winding down, can take it to the rack and make a shot or draw a foul.
The Pirates lack of depth extends beyond the post. East Carolina needs to find a true point guard that can spell Young.
The sophomore point guard has been spectacular, as he leads the nation with 8.3 assists per game, but he needs a break every once and a while.
Young is playing 35 minutes a night, and it appears that McCarthy is petrified to pull him out, and with good reason.
Sophomore Jontae Sherrod hasn’t really shown the ability to facilitate the offense when Young needs a rest.
It’s not really Sherrod’s fault, the 6-6 guard is more of a swingman, but for now ECU will have to make due.
Hinnant is capable of spelling Young and has done so on occasion, but then it hampers the team’s best scorer.
On the positive side, with the exception of the team’s final 20 minutes against Wake Forest, the Pirates have played hard every night.
East Carolina has also proved that when it plays its best, it can be a tough out for anybody.
ECU hung all game with George Mason before falling 77-71, and almost pulled off another stunner when it traveled to the RBC Center.
With less then three minutes left in the game, the Pirates trailed N.C. State by only five points. Had Wynn and Morrow not fouled out the outcome could have been much different.
Also, let’s not forget the tremendous first half against the Deacons, where ECU went into the break down only 41-37.
So while nobody got the ACC win they were looking for before the holiday break, don’t be discouraged.
Every once and while we stumble upon that unwrapped gift that was hidden in the closet for a few months, and this year it might just be a winning season.