Size matters

Published 7:48 pm Monday, January 9, 2012

East Carolina forward Maurice Kemp (with ball) attempts a shot during a game earlier this year. Over the weekend the Pirates got outscored 50-30 in the paint in their 81-63 loss to UCF and must regroup as they prepare to take on Tulsa Saturday. (WDN Photo/Brian Haines)

GREENVILLE — Basketball is a game of size and strength and East Carolina got a reminder of that on Saturday when Central Florida pounded the Pirates in the paint en route to an 81-63 victory.
Height isn’t too much of an issue for East Carolina as they feature frontcourt players like 6-8 Darrius Morrow, 6-9 Maurice Kemp and 6-8 Robert Sampson, but strength is a little but more of a concern. Morrow checks in at a fairly solid 245 pounds, but Kemp is a wiry 185 pounds and Sampson is an athletic 215. Beyond that, there’s not many big bodies on the bench for second-year coach Jeff Lebo to choose from other than senior transfer Austin Steed whose dimensions mirror Morrow’s.
Playing a nonconference schedule that didn’t include any teams from a BCS conference, size and length has not been a major issue for ECU (9-6, 0-2), but as the Pirates get deeper into their Conference USA schedule it figures to become more of a factor.
On Saturday, East Carolina’s lack of bulk was evident as it got outscored 50-30 in the paint by a beefy UCF frontcourt that also that also tallied a 46-29 advantage on the glass.
“It plays a big role, especially around the basket. We had six balls in the first half that we had go right where we wanted to get them and (the Knights) blocked them around the rim. When you have good offense and you get it where you want to you have to be able to finish in there,” Lebo said. “There’s also a weight factor there too. Being able to root people out whether it’s to offensive rebound or defensive rebound; that’s certainly a factor.”
With Sampson, a sophomore power forward who is averaging 4.6 rebounds in 16 minutes of action per game, playing sparingly due to an ankle and wrist injury, Kemp, who is grabbing a team-best seven boards per night, has been limited to the four spot. So far, the athletic yet slim junior transfer has been extremely productive in that role but as he faces bigger opponents his lack of bulk could be an issue.
“He’s 185 (pounds) and a lot of times (on Saturday) he was playing (against a guy whose) 260 out there and that’s hard. You can do a great job on a box out and get wedged under. That’s happened numerous times during the season,” Lebo said. “That’s just something that we have to deal with.”
Ideally, Lebo would love to play Kemp at small forward and Sampson at power forward but the challenge of learning a new position at this point in the season is a tall hurdle to leap over.
“When Robert got hurt it was easy for us to make a decision on who plays (power forward), but now you have two of your better rebounders who split time at one spot,” Lebo said. “It’s very difficult at this time to teach somebody else a completely different spot because it’s a different form offensively and a different form defensively. We’ll toy with (playing them together) a little bit but I don’t think at this point in the season you’re going to see too much of them out there together because it’s like in football taking a player from the offensive line and moving him to running back and also having him play defense.”
The lack of big bodies puts Lebo in another tough predicament as he must juggle the pros and cons of using bigger and smaller lineups.
“We’re in a pickle sometimes because our best offensive team is our smallest team and when we put the bigger lineup on the court that’s not our best offensive team,” Lebo said. “It’s kind of a pickle for us to be in sometimes because we put the bigger lineup out there to rebound but they can’t score and when we put the smaller ones out there we can’t rebound.
“We’re going to see it even more because Memphis is excellent at it and Marshall is big and strong and Tulsa is bigger than any of them. We’re going to see that all year long.”
With the roster being what it is, there are a few ways ECU can combat bigger opponents and the first is to get more help from the smaller guys on the court.
“Our guards just have to dig down and help us more. They have to be able to dig out some long rebounds and I don’t think they’re doing that as well as they’re capable of,” Lebo said.
The guards’ ability to make more shots will always take pressure off the inside players but the bottom line is ECU’s best way to take on bigger and stronger opponents is to just step up their intensity.
“We just have to do a better job of just being more physical … we just have to have a nose for it,” Lebo said. “There’s times where it’s just toughness like ‘I want the ball.’ There’s times where it is a length issue but we have to be like junkyard dogs when that ball goes up in there air.”