HARTFORD, Conn. – The season is over, but a challenge is in front of East Carolina – or at least, the bigger part of the challenge. The first was changing conferences, which by itself is challenging enough. The second has to do with the school and which conference they are now in, and perhaps more with the former.
The Pirates gave regular season champion SMU all they could handle before losing in the quarterfinals of the American Athletic Conference Tournament on Friday. Along the way, they set an American Athletic Conference Tournament record with 15 three-pointers.
East Carolina has long struggled to be relevant, and that has been true wherever they have been since they left the Southern Conference in 1977. They have won a conference tournament only twice. In the CAA, where they were a charter member, they finished higher than fifth just four times, never once finishing first or second. In Conference USA, they were never really a factor, in part from being there during the conference’s best days, but they were there for the days when it became a one-bid league with the NCAA Tournament. They only once entered that tournament seeded higher than the eighth seed.
In other words, this isn’t exactly a program that has a history of winning big.
Now they’re in a conference that should, as presently constructed, see multiple bids year-in, year-out. It’s one with the potential to be at least as good as Conference USA was in its early years. While that brings potential benefits for the program, they won’t come easily.
“This is a huge jump for East Carolina basketball,” said head coach Jeff Lebo. “We go from not being really relevant in any league that we’ve been in to jumping to a league that’s seven or six or whatever it is in the RPI and we got seven wins in the league. That may not sound like a lot to most, but if you look at the history of our basketball program, this is a lot for us.”
It means an uphill battle. A number of coaches have tried but failed to make them relevant, though Lebo appears to be making inroads. Under his watch, they have made it to the CIT three times in his five years, winning it in 2013. That year also stands as the only year in his tenure in which they haven’t won a conference tournament game, something they didn’t do much of while in the CAA or their early years in Conference USA. They went 6-12 in conference play with a relatively young team this season, and while The American is a strong conference, it wasn’t as strong this season as so much of the conference struggled to get good non-conference wins.
There’s plenty of competition trying to get out of the bottom of this year’s standings. USF has a new head coach with a great resume coming in. UCF has a lot of resources and thus a lot of potential. Houston has a proven winner in Kelvin Sampson, and he’s gotten a lot out of a limited roster this year. That’s only what’s at the bottom. If they want to eventually climb to the top of the standings, even more is required. Lebo knows this is another part of the challenge ahead.
“These programs aren’t going to come back to us,” Lebo said. “We’ve got to keep growing, we’ve got to keep investing, we’ve got to keep moving forward with our basketball program.”
The Pirates have some pieces to build around from this team. They will miss Antonio Robinson’s leadership, but every other significant piece comes back. They have one of the conference’s top freshmen in B.J. Tyson, who led them in scoring despite not starting, while Terry Whisnant and Caleb White will also return. Michel Nzege is an intriguing post player, and Marshall Guilmette will return alongside him as well.
The time is about as good as can be for the program in light of the success Lebo has had and with the young roster. They come in after a good run and with the guy who brought them the recent success. They didn’t replicate the recent success this year, but now they’re hopeful that it can be a building block to doing that later.