Time to get tough

Published 8:18 pm Monday, January 23, 2012

East Carolina forward Robert Sampson (with ball) goes up for a shot during the Pirates’ 81-63 loss to Central Florida on Saturday, Jan. 7. The Pirates are in a midst of a five-game losing streak and will look to put that to an end on Wednesday when they host Southern Miss at 7 p.m. (WDN Photo/Brian Haines)

GREENVILLE — Minges Coliseum was a welcome sight for the Pirates on Monday after they spent nearly a week in Texas only to come home with no more conference wins then when they left.
After winning five straight games to shut the door on 2011 and its nonconference schedule, East Carolina has flopped in 2012 losing five consecutive contests beginning with a 78-76 loss to Southern Miss in its Conference USA opener on Jan. 4. The Pirates (9-9, 0-5) will look to apply the breaks to that skid on Wednesday when they host a rematch with the Golden Eagles (17-3, 4-1) at 7 p.m.
East Carolina will attempt to regroup now that’s its back in Greenville after spending six days in Texas during which they lost 70-56 to UTEP and 82-76 to Houston.
“It was a long trip, we spent about five days in hotels and that’s hard,” East Carolina coach Jeff Lebo. “For me, that’s the longest conference road swing that I’ve ever had. It was hard but we’re happy to get back.”
So are the players, who took Saturday’s loss to the Cougars especially hard.
“They hurt after the last game,” Lebo said. “I’ve never had a team that at this point of the season cried — I’ve had teams that cried at the end of the year — But I had a few of them with tears in their eyes. It means something to them. They’ve invested a lot and they want to win and they came out (to practice) today and showed that they care.”
A long week of travel can take its toll on anybody but it can be a little tougher when you’re over six feet tall trying to cram into tight buss and airplane seats.
“You’re out of rhythm. You’re traveling on planes and busses sitting in little seats for three-hour flights and stuff like that. Anybody that travels knows what kind of fatigue that puts on your body.”
The Pirates haven’t exactly looked comfortable on the court either as they have been stuck at nine wins since their Dec. 31 victory over UVa.-Wise.
While there are several contributing factors to the losing streak, Lebo said the bottom line is that his team needs to get tougher, both mentally and physically.
Since the beginning of conference play the Pirates’ lack of size has routinely been exposed. Frontcourt players such as center 6-8, 245-pound Darrius Morrow (13.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg), 6-8, 185-pound Maurice Kemp (10.9, 6.7) and 6-8, 215-pound Robert Sampson (3.9, 4.7) have competed hard but in a lot of cases lack the bulk of the opponents they are competing against.
“We have to be in a tougher mindset … I don’t care that you’re outweighed you have to be mentally 60 pounds tougher than the guy who weighs 60 pounds more than you. You’re IQ has to be 60 pounds better than that guy. There’s ways to make up for it,” Lebo said. “And that’s just not in the frontcourt, that’s at every spot.”
Making matters even worse for Lebo is that there’s not another big body in sight beyond those three with Austin Steed being declared academically ineligible and Yasin Kolo having played only 13 minutes this season due to plantar fasciitis.
“We’re trying to hide some deficiencies. We have no post depth without Kolo and Steed. Bodies help you in this league, you need to have bodies that look like the other bodies,” Lebo said.
On the year ECU is +0.7 on the boards but when you remove its featherweight nonconference schedule and examine what the Pirates have done on the glass against C-USA opponents they are a dreadful -12.2, worst in the league.
“We’ve been getting crushed on the glass, that’s a big problem. That’s what people are trying to do to us,” Lebo said. “We have to get a little bit tougher there and have a little bit better nose for the ball.”
With an 0-5 Conference USA record, East Carolina is the only winless team in the league as it sits behind Tulane and UAB, who are both 1-4.
Central Florida sits atop of the standings with a 5-1 C-USA record, one game ahead of Memphis, Southern Miss and Marshall who are each 4-1.
The Pirates have 11 games remaining in the regular season and need to win at least six of them to close out the slate with a winning record. If they can do so, it would be the first time the program has had back-to-back winning seasons since ECU did it four straight times from 1993-97 as members of the Colonial Athletic Association.