East Carolina readies itself for one of the tougher stretches on this season’s schedule. The Pirates, who came two points shy of upsetting conference-best Tulsa, plays three of the best the American Athletic Conference has to offer all within a week.
ECU plays twice on the road—Wednesday at Memphis and then a week later at defending champion Connecticut—with a home match against Cincinnati sandwiched in between. All three teams made the NCAA tournament last season and rank in the top half of the conference standings.
“During this stretch in particular, we’re got five (teams) that are in the top 100 RPI,” said head coach Jeff Lebo, also referring to Tulsa. “We have not been in a kind of situation to play in a league like that where we have consistent teams that are in the top 100.”
The opposition provides enough of a challenge for the Pirates, who are looking for their second win in league play. That will be compounded by the tall task of playing thrice in the span of seven days.
ECU will be in unchartered territory for the remainder of the season. Lebo noted that the schedule had his team playing six times in January and nine times in February, which is the shorter of the two months. Thus, the Pirates have yet to experience what this stretch of games will demand of them.
On such a youth-driven team, some players that have yet to experience such a thing in their collegiate career. Sophomore forward Caleb White knows what it takes after going through similar stretches in the tail end of last year’s schedule in Conference USA.
“It will just take a lot of mental toughness,” said White. “You’re going to be tired. Everyone is already a little nicked up, but you’re going to be a lot sorer and you’re going to be hurting a lot more down the stretch. You just have to be mentally tough to push through.”
That mindset, as White tells himself and some of his younger teammates, has to be present not just in the game, but also in preparation.
“Come to practice with the focus and the same intensity,” said White. “You can’t try to take days off because you really don’t have them. There are no pushover games coming up. They’re all really good teams.”
Each outing in this three-game stretch comes with its own challenges. When the Pirates open this gauntlet at Memphis, they won’t be as undersized as they have been throughout most of the season. The Tigers don’t have any players taller than 6-foot-9, but ECU will struggle to get shots off—especially inside. Austin Nichols, a 6-foot-8 sophomore forward, leads the American with 62 blocks on the season.
That’s not the only problem Nichols will present. He’s a strong presence inside, whether it be scoring or rebounding. He leads the team with 12.9 points a game and is tied for team lead with 6.1 boards per game.
Next up, Cincinnati makes the trip to Greenville Feb. 1. The Bearcats will bring the same aggressive defense that held ECU to a season-low 48 points earlier this month. Even though Cincinnati only scores 62.8 points per game, the Pirates will struggle to find the baskets necessary to keep up. They shot a measly 27 percent from the field last time the two met and, on average, Cincinnati allows less than 55 points a game.
The third game sees ECU travel to Storrs, Conn. for a meeting with UConn. The Huskies boast a combination of scoring efficiency and shutdown size that make them one of ECU’s most formidable opponents.
While B.J. Tyson, Terry Whisnant and Caleb White make up one of the league’s best scoring trios, the Huskies have a triad of their own that is also very efficient. Ryan Boatwright, Daniel Hamilton and Amida Brimah combine for an average of 37 points a game.
Hamilton and the 7-foot Brimah both average at least five rebounds each game, too. Kentan Facey leads the team on the glass with 6.4 boards a game. The undersized Pirates will struggle to not only pull in rebounds, but also prevent second-chance points.
ECU doesn’t have it easy with this stretch of games. Lebo and company may not have found much of a moral victory after playing Tulsa so close, but decent outings over the next week will say a lot about this team.