Pirates Show Growth in Inaugural AAC Season

GREENVILLE, N.C. — In its inaugural season in the American Conference, ECU showed several signs of growth to elicit optimism for the future.

There’s an old Chinese fable that tells the tale of a bamboo farmer who had his faith tested after enduring four long years of barren harvests that did not produce as much as a single twig despite his best efforts.

Or so it seemed. However, beneath the surface, a foundation of roots was built over that time that was strong enough to support a bamboo tree which eventually grew nearly a foot per day in the fifth year and, by the summer time, emerged into a small bamboo forest.

And although the East Carolina men’s basketball team did not reap the rewards of a fruitful harvest in coach Jeff Lebo’s fifth year at the helm this season, its growth was existent and measurable, and the team’s potential moving forward is undeniable.

Back in November, there were several prognosticators or so-called college basketball experts who said the Pirates wouldn’t win any more than three league games in their inaugural season in the American Athletic Conference.

Instead, they doubled that number — going 6-12 in conference play and 13-18 overall to close the regular season — to finish eighth out of the 11 teams in The American standings.

ECU will meet ninth-seeded UCF in the first round of the conference tournament, which tips off on Thursday at XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut. The Knights are the only team that the Pirates beat twice in the regular season.

Following an uneventful non-conference season, there weren’t many signs that suggested ECU would have much success in the new league. After all, it wasn’t until the Pirates’ fifth try that they finally gained their first American Conference win — narrowly edging Houston 66-61 at Minges Coliseum.

Granted, it wasn’t Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon lacing it up for this year’s Cougars, who finished the season 10th in The American, but that win on Jan. 14 did do something, however, as the Pirates suddenly began to play with more confidence on their home floor.

Ten days later, ECU hosted Tulsa, who owned the league’s top record at the time, and took the Golden Hurricane down to the wire before eventually falling short, 66-64.

Then a week after that, a breakthrough occurred.

The Pirates hung around with Cincinnati — trailing 46-39 — then caught fire in the latter stages of the game on the wings of their standout freshman guard, B.J. Tyson. Tyson, who scored 16 of his 18 points in the second half, helped ECU close the game on an 11-0 run to capture the school’s first ever victory against the Bearcats, 50-46.

Over the next three weeks, ECU would win each of its next three home games by double figures, including a 64-53 win against Josh Pastner’s Memphis Tigers on Feb. 10. And even on the road, the Pirates hung tough — most notably, they put a scare into the Connecticut Huskies on Feb. 4 in Storrs, CT — but gaining that ever so elusive first road win of the season proved to be difficult.

Then, on Feb. 28, ECU finally ended its road slump that dated back to Feb. 1, 2014. Though, true to form, it didn’t come easy for the Pirates, who had to score 46 second-half points to rally from behind and outlast the UCF Knights 71-66 in Orlando.

Through the highs and lows of his five years in Greenville, Lebo has preferred not to measure his team’s overall performance in a season simply by how many wins or losses it had. Record is certainly the simplest solution to grade either success or failure, but what the win-loss column fails to do, at times, is accurately represent progress.

ECU is set to return four of its five starters next season — three of which have more than one year left of eligibility — and Tyson, who is tied with junior shooting guard Terry Whisnant for a team-best scoring average (12.5 points per game).

Also, the national profile of Pirate Basketball has grown exponentially this season because of The American’s television package with ESPN (16 of ECU’s 18 conference games were televised) and, as a result, Lebo has already seen short term results.

The most obvious example of this was a five-star recruit, Northside (Pinetown, N.C.) High School’s Edrice Adebayo, visiting Minges Coliseum for ECU’s regular season finale against Temple last week. Adebayo, who is only a junior at Northside, is seriously looking at ECU, along with national in-state blue bloods North Carolina and Duke, and that alone is something that should not be underscored.

Whether Adebayo comes to Greenville or not, the inevitable day is coming that the Pirates will begin to nab prospects from top-tier basketball powers. And when that happens, you can chalk it up as another seminal moment on the program’s progress report, right next to ECU's NCAA Tournament appearance in 1993; its upset wins — and subsequent court storms — against Dwyane Wade and Marquette, Rick Pitino and Louisville and N.C. State in the 2000s; Lebo’s hiring in 2010; and Akeem Richmond’s game-winning 3-pointer to win the CIT Tournament in 2013.

Above all else, ECU basketball is beginning to feel relevant in the national scope of college basketball. No longer is it just a tucked away, hidden gem that is overshadowed in ACC country.

Rather, the Pirates have continued to develop deep roots, well below the surface, in their first season in the American Conference and that foundation is only strengthening. It could only be a matter of time before they sprout and prosper.

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