Big day on tap for ECU men’s and women’s hoops

Published 2:37 pm Tuesday, December 30, 2014

ECU ATHLETIC MEDIA RELATIONS | CONTRIBUTED DAUNTING TASK: Senior guard Jada Payne is averaging 18.3 points per game this season and will look to stay hot against one of the country’s best teams.

DAUNTING TASK: Senior guard Jada Payne is averaging 18.3 points per game this season and will look to stay hot against one of the country’s best teams.

GREENVILLE — It’s been a year since ECU Director of Athletics Jeff Compher unveiled his brand identity initiative, one that came with a revamped, “recognizable and nationally-respected” logo and a new theme — “UNDAUNTED.” The plan was meant to put an exclamation point on a new era of Pirate athletics and bolster the hype of the school’s inaugural season in the American Athletic Conference.

Tomorrow, the ECU men’s basketball team opens its first AAC slate at noon against an old Conference USA foe, Tulane, while the women’s team will take the court at 2:30 p.m. for the most “daunting” task in program history — trying to dismantle college basketball’s top program.

Considered by many to be the stragglers of the AAC — a program left behind during conference realignment, all while other storied institutions solidified their place in a Power 5 conference — Connecticut’s men’s basketball program, coming off a NCAA National Championship season last year, has pieced together quite the resume under third year head coach Kevin Ollie, but it’s been the women’s program that has become the face of collegiate hoops over the last two decades under head coach Geno Auriemma.

Formally of the powerhouse Big East Conference, the Huskies have won four of the last six NCAA Championships — nine total with Auriemma, who took over a program in 1985 that had only one winning season to its name. Over the last 30 years under his tutelage, Connecticut has made 15 Final Fours, posted five perfect seasons and recorded an overall record of 889-134.

It’s been more of the same this season, as the Huskies, who currently hold a No. 2 ranking with a 10-1 record, look to take care of business against a Pirates team coming off a crushing AAC opening loss to South Florida on Sunday.

The only blemish on the visiting team’s out-of-conference schedule came on Nov. 17 at the hands of Stanford in the form of an 88-86-overtime loss. Since then, the Huskies have steamrolled over every team in their path, winning nine-straight, all by double-digits. They’ve scored nearly 90 points per game this season, while limiting opponents to just 53.5 on defense. With five players averaging double-digit points, including junior forward Breanna Stewart, who leads the team in scoring, the burden will fall on head coach Heather Macy’s defense to limit the damage early. Once a double-digit lead opens up, it’s been documented that any chance at a comeback is unlikely.

For the Pirates sitting at 9-3 (0-1 AAC), senior guard Jada Payne has picked up right where she left off last season, continuing to produce on offense and on the boards. Payne is ECU’s leader in scoring at a 18.3 point per game clip, while also averaging 6.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game. Transfer Jasmine Phillips has also contributed offensively and I’Tiana Taylor is nearly averaging a double-double (11.1 points, 9.1 rebounds).

For the ECU men, it was an up-and-down out-of-conference set for the Pirates with rock bottom being a 108-64 shellacking at the hands of No. 19 North Carolina on Dec. 7. But the Pirates have rebounded since then with three out of four wins against Division l opponents. Head coach Jeff Lebo’s squad is playing the way they need to with a formidable conference slate looming; arguably ECU’s most complete performance came Sunday with a win over UNC Greensboro (4-9). ECU shot 72.7 percent from the floor in the first half, allowing the Pirates to coast to a 71-50 victory — their second consecutive home win.

On the other side, Tulane comes into Minges having lost two in a row. Both setbacks came on the road against ranked teams, No. 21 Washington and No. 15 St. John’s, however, and fifth-year head coach Ed Conroy’s squad has already recorded nine wins on the season.

With both teams moving from Conference USA to the American, the Pirates and Green Wave are very familiar with each other, having played 18 C-USA matchups through the years. Tulane was a rare team that the Pirates enjoyed moderately consistent success over in the league. The Pirates had won five in a row over the Green Wave before Tulane ended that streak on the road with a 59-54 win in Minges Coliseum last season.

The Green Wave uses a guard-heavy starting lineup with Jonathon Stark, Louis Dabney and Jay Hook as projected starters — all under 6-foot-5 and all averaging over 11 points per game to lead their team in that category.

ECU has a similar offensive approach as the Pirates are the only team in the American with three players (Terry Whisnant – 13.2 ppg., Caleb White – 13.7 ppg. and B.J. Tyson – 13.7 ppg.) averaging over 13 points per contest, and all three operate at the guard or swing position.

The matchup promises to be a competitive one on paper. Both teams average 70 points per game, while Tulane holds a slight rebounding advantage and ECU holds a slight margin in assists. The Green Wave has allowed 62.8 points to its opponents compared to the Pirates’ 67.8, but right now ECU is playing its best defense so far this season with the return of its best defender, senior Paris Roberts-Campbell.

Expect a back-and-forth contest with exciting guard play on Wednesday in the first of two games at Minges Coliseum.

Content in this article was provided by sports editor David Cucchiara and Daily News ECU contributor Dan Hunt.