East Carolina players will jog out of their locker room Friday for their season opener, and though their surroundings will feel familiar, they will be entering a whole new world.
This season marks East Carolina’s first as a member of the American Athletic Conference, a league that features three NCAA tournament teams a year ago, including defending national champions Connecticut.
“It’s going to be quite a jump for us with the level of play,” East Carolina’s fifth-year coach Jeff Lebo said. “They’re a bunch of programs that have storied basketball histories and traditions … We’re going to have to raise our level of play substantially in order to compete day-in and day-out.”
The AAC also sent Memphis and Cincinnati to the NCAA tournament, while Southern Methodist advanced to NIT title game. Overall, the AAC went 13-4 (including Louisville) in the postseason to lead all conferences with a .765 winning percentage.
Though Louisville left for the ACC, the American has added Tulsa, last year’s Conference USA champions, along with Tulane and ECU.
As a member of Conference USA since the 2001-02 season, the Pirates have faced some quality competition, but perhaps the biggest adjustment ECU will have to make will be dealing with the AAC’s bruising brand of basketball.
“I haven’t really studied everybody yet, but I have talked to a lot of coaches who went from Conference USA to that league, and they said the physicality of that league (was one of the biggest differences). And one of those coaches was from Memphis, which is a pretty physical team,” Lebo said. “The physicality of the league is something that they were pretty surprised by.”
For the Pirates, the bump-and-grind style of basketball is akin to jumping off of a cliff. You can try to prepare for it as much as you want, but nothing is the same as actually experiencing it.
“You do the best you can, but you can’t simulate some of the stuff you’re going to see,” Lebo said. “We’re pretty physical in practice right now, and hopefully we stay healthy. We let them smack and grab and knock and kick, and we might have 50 fouls in the first game. I don’t know, it will be pretty interesting.
“We just try to talk to them and tell them what it’s going to be about, and try to make them tougher physically and mentally so they can play through those things.”
East Carolina went 17-17 (5-11) and was invited to the CollegeInsider.com tournament for the third time in four years. Under the direction of Lebo, the Pirates have won 73 games in four seasons, the most by any ECU coach over that time in the school’s 83-year history.
Helping the Pirates combat the physicality will be the return of versatile 6-foot-10 sophomore forward Marshall Guilmette, who missed 29 games last season with a knee injury.
“Last year, he went down with an injury, and this year, he’s looking better than ever,” said sophomore small forward Caleb White, who was second on the team in scoring last season with 12.4 points per game. “He provides a lot. He’s got a skill set that not many big men have. He’s a good shooter, but also a good passer. I don’t think people talk about his passing enough. He can pass out of the post and the high post.”
East Carolina is hoping that the addition of Guilmette, along with guard Terry Whisnant, a Florida State transfer, will help offset the loss of sharpshooter Akeem Richmond, who averaged 18 points per game last season.
It won’t take long to find out just how well ECU is prepared for the new league. The Pirates face a brutal five-game stretch beginning in mid-January against teams that all qualified for postseason play. Up first will be Southern Methodist, a trendy preseason pick to win the AAC, and then games against Tulsa, Memphis and Cincinnati before ending with a trip to Storrs, Conn., to face the champion Huskies.
“We’re very excited,” White said. “It will be good for us. It will be a lot more competitive out there, and we’re going to need to bring it every night.”