Lebo Reflects on First AAC Season

GREENVILLE, N.C. — ECU exceeded expectations in its inaugural campaign in the American Athletic Conference and coach Jeff Lebo sees it as a stepping stone season for the basketball program.

Shortly after completing his fifth season at East Carolina, Jeff Lebo curled back into his office chair on the second floor of the Smith-Williams Center — a building that was nothing more than an idea on paper when he was first named the Pirates’ coach — and reviewed the growth of his program over the last half-decade.

“A whole different place,” Lebo said, comparing the current state of Pirate basketball from where it was five years ago. “We’re in a different league.”

Literally.

ECU finished its inaugural season in the American Athletic Conference with a 14-19 (6-12 American) record, which far exceeded even the most optimistic Pirate fan’s expectations in a respected basketball league.

Without a significant post presence, the Pirates beat Cincinnati for the first time — ever, took down Josh Pastner’s Memphis Tigers for just the second time and held two halftime leads against the defending-champion Connecticut Huskies in a pair of highly-competitive games.

In the American Conference Tournament, ECU survived an overtime thriller with Central Florida, 81-80, and nearly earned its first victory against a ranked opponent since 2002 (Marquette) in the second round. However, 15 3-pointers weren’t enough to upset 20th-ranked SMU, which ended ECU’s season 74-68 on March 13.

“We were playing our best basketball, I thought, at the end of the year,” Lebo said. “I think, overall, we got better. We learned what it was like in this league and maybe did better in the league than a lot of people would have thought, especially towards the end.”

The league took notice, and — more importantly — so did recruits.

Most notably, five-star forward Edrice Adebayo's interest in ECU has been well documented. The 6-foot-8, 230-pound Northside (Pinetown, N.C.) forward visited Minges Coliseum for the Pirates' home finale against Temple on March 5.

In addition to considering ECU, Adebayo also listed blue-blood programs like North Carolina and Kansas as the other favorites to land him.

Whether or not Lebo pulls it off in this one specific case is irrelevant, but ECU just being a part of the conversation for a five-star player — competing with UNC and other top-tier schools, nonetheless — is unchartered territory for the Pirates.

Lebo cited the American’s television deal with ESPN as a significant recruiting tool. Sixteen of the Pirates’ 18 conference games were nationally televised, granting the program a new level of exposure that it had never seen before.

“That’s never happened here,” Lebo said. “Kids are seeing that, parents are seeing that and getting a chance to watch us play. We get a chance to showcase our program and our university.”

In his first five years in Greenville, Lebo snapped the school’s 14-year drought without a winning season, produced a 20-win campaign that was capped with the program’s first-ever postseason tournament championship and helped raise funding for the construction of the basketball programs’ $17 million practice facility.

But in the mind of Lebo, this past season was just another stepping stone on the way to his end goal: having the Pirates become perennial contenders in the American Conference, alongside storied basketball programs such as UConn, Memphis and Cincinnati.

This will not be a short process, though, and Lebo understands that. But in the next five years of his term, Lebo certainly feels he can get the Pirates several steps closer to achieving that goal.

“I think people around here know about East Carolina,” he said, “but we need to spread out and we need to have more people know about our basketball program ... that understand how good it is, the resources that we have and the interest that we have.

“It’s not the East Carolina that it was 25 years ago. To explain that, and to get people here to see that, is where I think we go in the next five years.”


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