East Carolina’s debut basketball season in the American Athletic Conference is closing in quickly. Entering a conference that boasts four NCAA tournament teams, including national champion Connecticut, provides its own dose of adversity.
After being thrown into the fire last season, there’s not much the Pirates aren’t ready to face. Between injuries and transfers being ineligible to play due to NCAA regulations, the Pirates oftentimes only had seven or eight players ready to play.
“We lost a lot of bodies last year, so playing down the stretch when everyone’s fatigued, that takes away from your strength and ability to execute,” said guard Caleb White. “That hurts in practice, as well, with your rhythm because you have energy in practice, but down the stretch in games you don’t have it so things aren’t clicking and you aren’t knocking down shots.”
Losing any starting player forces a team to go back to the drawing board. When forward Marshall Guilmette suffered a season-ending knee injury early in the campaign when ECU traveled to Duke, head coach Jeff Lebo was forced make plenty of changes.
“The depth is something that you’ve got to have in college basketball,” said Lebo. “In basketball, when one of your good guys gets hurt and gets out, it changes the complete dimension of your team. One of those guys going out—that’s 20 percent of your team.”
As a result of the lack of depth, Lebo switched his squad’s defense from man-to-man to zone—something he never had to do in the past. Now it seems like a blessing in disguise because ECU is able to switch between the two defensive systems.
“Before last year, we were predominantly man-to-man,” said senior guard Paris Roberts-Campbell. “Having to play basically all zone with a smaller lineup I think is going to help us when we have to change it up during some games this year. Most of the games, we’ll probably be the smaller, quicker team, so I think that zone will be able to help.”
Even some of the transfers that weren’t eligible to play last year can work both man-to-man and zone after practicing with the team last year.
Numerous players were also asked to take on more minutes and even switch roles on the court. Among those was White, who was a freshman at the time.
“It made me learn on the fly,” said White. “I had a lot of support from Coach Lebo and some of the older guys. There’s only so much you can say. You have to go through it yourself. Being thrown into it, I had to learn quickly and I had to learn the hard way. I think it’s really going to pay off this year.”
|Akeem Richmond is one of the most impressive shooters to come through ECU..|
|(Photo by Kat Jessick/Inside ECU Sports)|
Now that White’s role is more defined, Lebo is hoping he will continue his stellar development. Lebo is hoping that he can play a part in filling the scoring void left by decorated sharpshooter Akeem Richmond.
“He knows what he had to do in the offseason to get better. The one thing that hurt him was, more than anything, that he didn’t have competition at that spot,” said Lebo. “He knew he was going to play. That’s just a natural thing. This year, we’re going to have more competition. He’ll be pushed more. I’d like to see him grow as a player.”
Lebo noted that White was more of a jump shooter last season. This year, he’s hoping White can get to the foul line more and help find easy points around the hoop.
The Pirates will also face some bumps along the road simply because they’re new to the conference. The competition itself is challenging, but there are plenty of other differences between the AAC and Conference USA that will require some adjusting.
“I think we’ll see a lot of things we’re not used to seeing,” said Roberts-Campbell. “Big arenas night after night, hostile crowds, more physical teams, more physical players. I think just preparing for that each day in practice will help us when it’s time to step into those games.”
Roberts-Campbell isn’t too concerned that going up against more physical teams will make it harder for ECU to stay healthy this year. He’s noticed the physicality picking up in practice, so he feels the team will be ready to rise to the challenge.
ECU will open the season with a three-game homestretch, starting with North Carolina Wesleyan on Nov. 14. The Pirates will then travel to Estero, Fla. to take place in the Gulf Coast Showcase.