Coming off the program's first post-season-tournament title, the Pirates began preseason practice on Monday inside the new Williams-Smith Center. But this isn't the same team that won at Weber State in April's CIT Championship.
In addition to graduating its two leading scorers from last season –Miguel Paul and Maurice Kemp – ECU unexpectedly lost its two starting forwards, Ty Armstrong and Robert Sampson, as well. Armstrong left for personal reasons, while Sampson transferred back home to Georgia Tech.
Also, former starter Erin Straughn, who missed all of last season due to a lingering leg injury, will not return to the team as a player. Instead, he will serve in a new capacity as a student assistant on fourth-year head coach Jeff Lebo's staff.
Currently without any upperclassmen in the front court, there is a considerable amount of uncertainty surrounding the program.
"It's scary," said Lebo on having mostly inexperienced personnel. "You look at four starters gone – two expected, two unexpected – and you lose another guy in Erin Straughn who was starter.
"You're looking at guys who have been in the program that understand what it takes to win. Now we've got all new faces."
One of those new faces is assistant coach, Mike Netti, who comes from Gardner Webb to replace the Bulldogs' newest head coach Tim Craft. While visiting Greenville as an opposing coach, Netti said he was impressed with ECU's up-and-coming program.
"When we watched ECU last year, we knew they were so talented," Netti said. "We felt like (they) could score at any time, we felt like (they) had good young talent and I think right now … they're excited about having a bigger role. Whereas last year, I think they were more mature and had some more experience."
This fall marks the first time college basketball teams are allowed to begin preseason practice this early. The NCAA permits for teams to practice 42 days before their season opener, but only allows them to hit the court on 30 of those days.
Due to ECU's surplus of youth on its roster, these extra days could be critical for the Pirates to enjoy early-season success.
"There's a fine line because we don't want to wear them down going into February and March," said Netti. "But I think it's going to be good for this group because we're young and have so much learning to do."
The Pirates will lean on a trio of returning players who played significant minutes in the backcourt – led by senior shooting guard Akeem Richmond. Fresh off shattering the school record for 3's in a season (105) and hitting the game-winning shot to clinch ECU's CIT title, Richmond expects to do more.
"The expectations are pretty high since we won the CIT," said Richmond. "We are just trying to progress … whether it's (appearing in) the NIT, or NCAA (tournament)."
ECU will open its season at home on Nov. 8 against N.C. Wesleyan.