Lebo Keeps Pirates Afloat

East Carolina just finished the regular season slightly above .500, but with all things considered, Jeff Lebo has done accomplished so much with so little.

The East Carolina men's basketball team closed its regular season slate Thursday at Old Dominion with a decisive 68-47 loss. However, regardless of the result, what Coach Jeff Lebo has done with this group of Pirates is nothing short of remarkable.

A year removed from its best season in school history, ECU completed the 2013-2014 campaign with a winning record of 16-15; marking the first time it has coupled consecutive winning seasons since 1997.

Between 1997 and now, there was a stretch of fourteen consecutive seasons that ECU had finished below .500, which ended after Lebo's first season at the helm in 2010-2011.

Last year's team changed everything for the program. There were sell-outs at Minges Coliseum and even a packed airport at 4:30 a.m. to serve as a welcoming party for the CollegeInsider.com Tournament champions. Then, over the summer, a $17 million practice facility – the Williams-Smith Center – went up.

The program was at the highest point it has ever been, but as we soon learned, the narrative of the 2013-2014 Pirates was far different than a season ago.

ECU lost four seniors – including standouts Miguel Paul and Maurice Kemp – in addition to four more players for unexpected reasons during the offseason, which left one starter (Paris Roberts-Campbell) from its CIT Championship team and just three post players on the roster altogether to start of the season.

However, five games into the year, things were looking up for the Pirates. They nearly stunned the No. 6 ranked Duke Blue Devils in a NIT Season Tip-Off matchup at storied Cameron Indoor Stadium and were feeling upbeat after the narrow 83-74 defeat. At that point, they exuded confidence and the belief that they could compete with any given team in the country.

Then, Lebo received the unfortunate news that proved to be devastating for him and his club. Sophomore Marshall Guilmette, one of the team's three post-players, sustained a right knee injury against Duke that would force him to miss the remainder of the season.

Suddenly, Lebo's approach had completely changed. He understood his team would be fighting an uphill battle in each and every game the Pirates would play for the rest of the season.

As a result, Lebo's rotation was limited to just seven players and with a short-term injury to freshman Brandan Stith, the Pirates utilized point guard Prince Williams as their back-up center. There was even a point Lebo shortened the team's pregame warm-up routine just so he could preserve as much energy as possible.

Lebo, who is typically a man-to-man coach when it comes to defensive sets, switched to zone to mask some of ECU's posterior shortfalls after a disastrous defensive outing against Old Dominion in the conference opener.

With the help of first-year assistant coach Mike Netti, who spent two years as a graduate assistant at Syracuse, the Pirates continued to play almost exclusively in zone and it soon paid off.

ECU's zone held three of Conference USA's best teams – Southern Miss, UTEP and Tulane – to 60 points or fewer and once Caleb White emerged as the team's No. 2 scoring option behind senior shooting guard Akeem Richmond, the Pirates began to win again.

White, a 6-foot-7 freshman forward, has scored in double-figures in 26 of the team's 31 games this year and brings an element of versatility to his game that mirrors what Maurice Kemp brought in his two seasons prior to White's arrival. Fittingly, both players donned the same No. 2 on the back of their jerseys.

Meanwhile, Richmond has captured several milestones this season. In just his second season with the Pirates, the six-foot Sanford, N.C. native is already the school's all-time leader in 3-pointers; succeeding Lester Lyons' previous mark (229).

Also, Richmond became just the 13th player in NCAA history to hit 400 3-pointers in a career during Thursday night's regular season finale in Norfolk, Va., dating back to his two years at Rhode Island.

He had a pair of outings against both Fayetteville State and Campbell that he poured in 10 3-pointers apiece and trailing by two points at UNC Greensboro, Richmond was fouled on a three-point shot, then proceeded to calmly drain each of the three free throws that followed; securing an 85-84 come-from-behind road-win.

Aside from Richmond and fellow classmate Petar Torlak, the Pirates expect to have everybody returning next season, in addition to Guilmette, high school standout Lance Tejada and a trio of transfers – highlighted by former Florida State sharpshooter Terry Whisnant.

Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves, though. ECU still has next week's C-USA tournament in El Paso, its last before joining the American Athletic Conference this summer, and could even appear in the CIT Tournament again if they so choose.

No matter which way you cut it, this season was far from a setback for the Pirates. All things considered, they proved to themselves and everyone else that ECU basketball will no longer tolerate losing, even if practically their entire roster is depleted because of injuries, transfers or other unfortunate events.

These are all signs of a winning program and that all goes back to a coach who knows a thing or two about that.


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