East Carolina basketball gears up for second AAC season

Published 11:38 am Thursday, October 1, 2015

DAVID CUCCHIARA | DAILY NEWS KEY CONTRIBUTOR: As a freshman, B.J. Tyson led the Pirates in scoring, averaging 12.5 points per game.

KEY CONTRIBUTOR: As a freshman, B.J. Tyson led the Pirates in scoring, averaging 12.5 points per game.

GREENVILLE — Friday marks the official beginning of the 2015-16 college basketball season, but East Carolina head coach Jeff Lebo took advantage of the one-hour time period allotted by the NCAA to kickoff practice for the Pirates Wednesday afternoon.

ECU is coming off of its first season in the American Athletic Conference, where it finished with a 5-12 record (13-19 overall). Lebo said that a year of experience in a new conference will help his team prepare for the upcoming season.

“Well I think we have a better understanding of how people play,” Lebo said. “We’ve been on the road and played in tough environments. We’ve got a taste of what the competition is like and we’ve got a gauge there and our kids our hungry.”

In past seasons, depth at forward has been an issue for the Pirates. This season may look a little different under the basket, however. Along with returning players, newcomers are expected to make an impact down low.

Michael Zangari, Michel Nzege, Kanu Aja and Caleb White are among the returning forwards that will likely be turned to for experience and production at forward. Deng Riak, a true 6-foot-10 center, swingman Kentrell Barkley and junior college transfer Clarence Williams are fresh faces in the program that will have their opportunities to contribute, according to Lebo.

But coming into camp there is bad news for one returning starter.

“We’ve been good (health-wise) except for one. Marshall Guilmette hasn’t been cleared by the doctors yet,” Lebo said Wednesday afternoon. “I anticipate him being out for an extended period of time and he’ll probably be reevaluated around November, so that’s a big blow to him.”

Last season, B.J. Tyson put the AAC on notice with his play. Off the bench, the sophomore led the team in scoring with 12.5 per game. Another member of the sophomore class has impressed Lebo with his improvement — Lance Tejada, who came off the bench last season behind graduated senior Antonio Robinson.

Tejada had a solid showing in the conference tournament against Central Florida with six steals, eight assists and three points, most of the production coming in the first half while Robinson dealt with foul trouble.

“Lance has really dropped his weight and worked on his shot during the offseason, so I have really high expectations for him,” Lebo said. “B.J. Tyson kind of took the league by storm last season and he is in great shape and he’s really ready for another great season. It’ll be tougher year for him because people know his game, but I think he’ll be okay.”

Tyson spent the offseason working on his shot, something that will help to soften the blow from the loss of sharpshooter Terry Whisnant. He worked with assistant coach Mike Netti to breakdown film and work on cutting down on turnovers.

Tyson said he and Tejada’s relationship is special and that helps them gel as a point guard-shooting guard duo.

“We’re like brothers, like that’s my blood brother,” Tejada said. “So he comes in the gym and I’m in here with him. He works on his point guard things and I work on my shooting guard things. It’s going to be a good compliment.”

Another key cog to the Pirates’ season will be the progression of junior and second returning leading scorer Caleb White, who averaged 11.1 points per game. White was a consistent contributor during his freshman and sophomore seasons. Lebo believes the Buckingham, Va., native is poised to take another stride in his junior season.

A major part of White’s progression will be his role as a leader, which White said is changing, not beginning.

“Last year, I just kind of led by example by kind of being one of the better players here,” White said. “I’m looking to lead more with my voice and see how much I can influence people by how much more I communicate on the floor.”

Lebo and the Pirates will have about a month and a half before the season tips off on Nov. 13 at home against Grambling State.