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View from the East
Saturday, November 22, 2003

By Al Myatt
ECU Beat Writer for The News & Observer

Season of promise starts now

©2003 Bonesville.net

If the competitive difficulty of East Carolina’s basketball schedule were plotted on a graph, the peak would have been last season.

The Pirates played the teams in Conference USA’s tough American Division home and home, doing so without the advantage of sneaking up on C-USA powers as ECU had done the previous year.

The competitive situation eases to a degree this season because the Pirates will play teams such as Cincinnati, Louisville and Marquette only once during the regular season. Division play has been dissolved. Instead, ECU will play Charlotte, UAB and South Florida home and home.

The top 12 teams in the league standings of C-USA’s 14 basketball-playing members advance to the C-USA Tournament in Cincinnati. ECU has been picked 13th by the C-USA coaches but with a more mature club that features four returning starters and a less difficult schedule, Pirates coach Bill Herrion feels a return to the league tournament is realistic among the team’s goals.

ECU opens the season at home against a revamped Campbell program at 7 p.m. tonight.

“Our goals never really change,” Herrion said. “Number one, we want to play hard. We want to compete hard and become the best team we can be. Number two, we want to get into the C-USA Tournament. The ultimate goal is postseason play (the NCAA Tournament or the NIT).”

Herrion has been through a range of competitive challenges at ECU. When he arrived for the 1999-2000 season after a successful run at Drexel, the Pirates were playing in the Colonial Athletic Association. The focus changed when ECU was approved for all-sports membership in C-USA and the Pirates spent the 2000-01 campaign as lame ducks in the CAA, playing the regular season but ineligible for the CAA Tournament.

In 2005-06, of course, every member of C-USA’s old American Division — other than the Pirates — will have a new home. Cincinnati, Louisville, Marquette and DePaul move to the Big East. Charlotte and Saint Louis will join the Atlantic 10. South Florida from C-USA’s old National Division also will head for the Big East and TCU may possibly exit for the Mountain West.

Teams scheduled to join C-USA and fill the voids presently include Central Florida, Marshall, Rice, SMU and Tulsa.

“I was looking at some rankings of our recruiting class the other night and we were 10th or 11th in C-USA,” Herrion said. “But if you take out the teams that will be leaving, our recruiting class was third.”

Herrion concedes that ECU may not be as attractive to recruits without the power bloc of C-USA’s departing programs. The absence of point guard Cedric Jackson of New Jersey from ECU’s early signees (6-10 Charles Bronson and 6-7 junior college transfer Mike Castro) may be attributed to the league’s changing composition. Herrion will still seek the best players possible, the question is how interested higher caliber players will be in ECU within the context of a watered-down C-USA.

Competitive level is a relative thing. ECU stands to move up in basketball in C-USA when some of the traditional powers move out.

Scheduling is one factor that separates ECU from programs such as Louisville and Cincinnati. The Pirates played Campbell in Fayetteville and traveled to Coastal Carolina and Radford last season in order to get those teams to play in Greenville this season.

The Cardinals and Bearcats make monetary guarantees to get lesser teams in Division I to come to their homecourts. College basketball’s established teams can, in effect, buy wins. That helps their records and their ratings power index, which are factors when the NCAA Tournament committee makes its selections.

ECU will play at Seton Hall on Dec. 6 this season for a guarantee of its own — $40,000 — but money wasn’t the only factor in that scheduling choice. The Pirates have turned down guarantees for “money games” from other teams in the ACC, Big East and Big Ten.

“We felt like we needed to get to that area,” Herrion said of the battle of Pirates in South Orange, N.J. “Japhet McNeil (freshman point guard) is from New York and Mike Cook (freshman guard) is from Philadelphia. We’re trying to recruit that area so we felt it was a good game to go play.”

ECU must return home games last season with trips to George Mason and Ole Miss this season. They’ll meet Virginia Tech in Norfolk on Dec. 27.

“Our schedule has a good balance,” Herrion said. “Having one division in C-USA gives us a more competitive opportunity night in and night out. Our division the last two years has just really beat us up.”

The Pirates got off to a 10-2 start last season that included a win over Marquette, which reached the Final Four. ECU struggled the rest of the way, finishing 12-15 overall and 3-13 in the league. The Pirates missed the C-USA Tournament after earning a berth their first season in the league. ECU still has not won a C-USA road game, going 0-16 over two seasons.

“We’ve got to figure this thing out for four months instead of two,” Herrion said. “Some of it was that we didn’t sneak up on anybody like we did two years ago. When some of these teams came to ECU for the first time, they weren’t ready for that beehive and people got knocked back a little bit.

“This past year people knew a little bit more about what to expect.”

Herrion also admitted that last year’s team was negatively affected when he suspended starting senior point guard Travis Holcomb-Faye for a stretch of games because of academic issues.

“From a chemistry standpoint, I don’t think we ever really recovered from that,” Herrion said.

In Holcomb-Faye’s place is McNeil. Returning starters include seniors Gabriel Mikulas, Erroyl Bing and Derrick Wiley as well as sophomore guard Belton Rivers. Junior Moussa Badiane is already ECU’s career leader in blocked shots. Freshmen Mike Cook and Frank Robinson should help Luke MacKay give the Pirates needed outside scoring balance.

Campbell will bring a different team to Greenville than the one ECU blasted 86-61 last season, outrebounding the Camels 51-22. New coach Robbie Laing has replaced a deliberate offense with a running approach and will have a taller team than last season. Campbell’s new work ethic is evidenced by 5 a.m. practices.

The Pirates are healthy although Rivers and Cook have both dealt with preseason concussions.

“We’re as talented right now as we’ve been in my five years here,” Herrion said.

After five weeks of practice, Herrion said he feels the team is more than ready to play a game.

It’s time.

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02/23/2007 12:41:21 AM
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