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Basketball team faces greatest challenge in tougher athletic conference

By Steve Tuttle
ECU News Services

Most people think East Carolina, with Shane Carden returning at quarterback, will score early and often during football games this fall in the new American Athletic Conference. In their last season in Conference USA before moving to a tougher league, the Pirates racked up 10 wins, beat N.C. State and North Carolina on the road, and went bowling for the seventh time in the last eight years.

After you’ve played—and beaten—your bigger ACC cousins, it’s just not intimidating to think about playing UConn, Memphis and the other new conference schools on this fall’s football schedule.

But it’s a whole different ball game to think about playing UConn, Memphis and the other new conference schools on this fall’s basketball schedule.

That’s the startling reality sinking in on many ECU fans. Playing in the American, as the conference prefers to be known, probably won’t offer any David-and-Goliath moments for the football team. We’ve won against most of these teams before. Moreover, the football team’s road to a conference championship won’t have to run through Tuscaloosa, Ala., or Tallahassee, Fla.

But basketball? Its road ahead is a lot rockier, with lots of Goliaths.

This fall the men’s basketball team begins conference play with, among others, UConn, which has played in 30 NCAA tournament games and won three national titles, most recently in 2010-11; Cincinnati, which has two NCAA titles, appeared in 26 March Madness games and reached the Sweet 16 in 2012; and Memphis, which has 13 straight 20-win seasons and made it to the Sweet 16 four of the last five seasons.

Of all the ECU sports programs, the change in conferences probably will have the greatest impact on the women’s basketball team. Talk about a step up in competition; the Lady Pirates will have to contend with the seven-time NCAA national champion UConn Huskies. At 25-0 late in the season, the Huskies were on track for an eighth national title.

Is ECU a basketball school?

When ECU does take the court against UConn, don’t be surprised if the score is close—in both the men’s and women’s games. If that happens, it could be the moment people stop saying ECU is just a football school.

To prepare for a higher level of competition, ECU men’s basketball coach Jeff Lebo seems to be taking a page out of the Pirate football team’s playbook. In past seasons, he’s produced the best ECU teams in a generation.

He’s upgraded ECU’s nonconference schedule to include games against Carolina, Duke and N.C. State. The Pirates were competitive in all three, kept the score close and had chances to win. But ECU’s lack of polish showed in three losing scores.

There will be more games like that on the basketball teams’ schedules in coming seasons—more N.C. States and fewer N.C. Wesleyans. Conference rules say members must play nonconference teams within certain RPI rankings. So, you can say so-long to Chowan and other Division II schools on ECU’s usual early-season calendar.

Women’s basketball coach Heather Macy thought she would have two years to prepare for this jump in competition. The university said in November 2012 it would join the new conference as a football-only member for 2014 and other sports a year or so later. But that timetable was moved up. East Carolina announced last March that it will step into the American on July 1 as an all-sports member.

That gave Macy just one recruiting season to prepare to face the Huskies. And, she quickly points out, only a year for ECU and Minges Coliseum to prepare to host a conference game against an opponent like UConn.

“It’s going to take a lot of different resources to make this transition,” Macy says. “Mainly it means we will need our fan and community support. Because we are going to play in these venues…in front of five-to-ten thousand people. And we need to make sure that when they come to Greenville that we are meeting that expectation.”

Hit the ground running

Macy has invigorated a women’s basketball program with a proud history but without a conference title since 2007. Her team was 22-10 in 2012-13 and made it to the C-USA semifinals. During the season the Lady Pirates thrilled the student body with a 14-1 home record. After an appearance in the WNIT—the school’s first postseason game in three years—Macy was voted C-USA coach of the year.

Now in her fourth season, Macy has proven to be a wily coach and an astute recruiter with an ability to spot talented junior college players and transfer students. With UConn looming on the schedule, Macy knew she couldn’t wait for a bunch of high school recruits to mature. She needed players with game experience.

In the past two seasons she recruited the top high school player in North Carolina and signed three highly regarded junior college transfers. Her team burst out of the gate in November, rolling to eight consecutive victories.


But attendance at women’s basketball games continues to average just under 1,000, according to Tom McClellan, ECU assistant athletic director for media relations.

Macy believes her team will perform better if fan support keeps growing. She hopes 8,000-seat Williams Arena will be full when UConn comes to town.

Also in his fourth season, Lebo has led the Pirates to the school’s first-ever postseason tournament championship. The Pirates posted back-to-back winning records, the first time that had happened in 19 years.

“For basketball this is a substantial jump for us,” Lebo said. “Today there are three top-10 teams in the conference. We are going to be playing a lot of national programs, schools that have been playing on the national stage for a long time. We will be playing in big-time arenas against people who are accustomed to winning.”

Having only one recruiting year to prepare makes the job tougher, Lebo said. “Most good players have been recruited (all through high school), so it will take us time to get into that level of recruiting.

"Remember, we are a program that has had only two winning seasons in 36 years, so it will take some time for our recruiting to take that step up.”

He’s looking forward to that first conference game in Minges. “We don’t have a huge place. We have an intimidating place and a fun place to play. Our students have been terrific to date, they have come out for us, and I think they will really come out when they see who we’re playing, and that it’s going to be on television.”

No more apologies

For years, ECU’s weak basketball program was cited as an argument against the school’s bid to move up to a premier sports conference. The blame mostly was laid on East Carolina’s inadequate facilities, which coaches said inhibited recruiting.

But with the opening of the new Smith-Reynolds Center beside Minges Coliseum—the $17 million basketball practice facility mostly paid for by the Pirate Club—coupled with Macy’s and Lebo’s recent win-loss records—tangible signs are emerging of ECU’s commitment to basketball.

“When we bring recruits on campus, we walk them and their parents through that building and we tell them, ‘You can see the investment ECU has made in basketball.’

"And then I hear them say, ‘Wow, basketball really is important at ECU,’” Macy says.

After the Smith-Reynolds tour, Macy says she asks recruits one question. “I say, do you want to compete against the best there is? You come here, you play UConn twice a year. And that means you will play on national TV at least twice a year, because all of their games are.”

A big TV contract

“It’s the difference between our games being seen on ESPN instead of those cable channels way up there in the 600s that a lot of people don’t even get.”

That’s how Nick Floyd, ECU’s executive associate director of athletics, describes what the move to the American will mean to the average Pirate fan.

The ink was barely dry on the documents creating the conference last March when the league announced a $126 million, seven-year contract with ESPN to telecast its football and basketball games through 2020. Separately, the conference signed a six-year, $54 million deal with CBS to broadcast other basketball games and some Olympic sports games.

The conference championship football game, which is expected to begin in 2015 after the Naval Academy joins, will be carried by ABC or ESPN in early January on what’s known as college championship Saturday, the contract states.

In men’s basketball, all games controlled by the conference will be televised on one of the ESPN family of channels. More than 63 percent—a minimum of 107 conference games­—will be carried on national broadcast or national cable. The conference postseason basketball tournament also will be on national television, with the championship game televised on ABC or ESPN.

In women’s basketball, nearly 60 conference games will be televised on national cable, regional sports networks and ESPN3, including the entire women’s basketball postseason tournament. Eighteen regular-season games will be televised nationally. The women’s basketball tournament semifinals and the championship game will be on ESPN or ESPN2.

Beginning this fall, the American conference football champion will compete in the College Football Playoff semifinals—the new playoff system that replaces the BCS bowl system—if it is among the top four teams following the regular season. Otherwise, the league would place its champion in the Cotton Bowl, Fiesta Bowl or Peach Bowl if it is ranked higher than the champions of Conference USA, the Mid-American Conference, the Mountain West Conference and the Sun Belt Conference.

The American has reached deals to send teams to six bowl games. Those are the Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando, Fla., against an ACC team; the Belk Bowl in Charlotte, also against an ACC team; the New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium in New York against a Big 12 team; the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala., against an SEC team; the AutoZone Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tenn., also against an SEC team; and the Beef ‘O’Brady Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla., against a C-USA team.

While many financial details have yet to be worked out—the first conference schedules won’t be announced until later this spring—Floyd says membership in the American will add at least $1 million a year to the ECU athletics budget.

East Carolina was aiming to exit Conference USA and join the Big East just as the Big East nearly collapsed during the conference realignment madness in 2011 and 2012. In all, 14 Big East schools left for other conferences, and 15 other schools announced plans to join (eight as all-sports members, and four for football only).

Three of the latter group eventually backed out and seven other schools, known as the Catholic 7, announced that they would leave as a group and take the Big East name with them. The incoming schools then chose the American Athletic Conference name.
The league prefers to be called “the American” because going by its initials might cause confusion with the ACC.

ECU said in November 2012 that it would join the new conference as a football-only member for 2014 and other sports a year or so later. But that timetable was moved up. East Carolina announced last March that it will step into the American on July 1 as an all-sports member.

ECU joins the American in the conference’s second season, filling a spot created by Louisville’s move to the ACC. 

Out with the old logos

Shelley Binegar, associate athletic director for external relations, says that to her, joining the new conference means thousands of small changes. “Every logo on every sports uniform, home and away, for all 19 of our teams, will have to be changed,” she says. “All the flags over the football stadium, every logo on our website, every business card and page of letterhead that we use— we must have all those changed by July 1.”

The conference change also upends traditional practices and expectations for ECU’s Olympic sports teams. In C-USA, the golf, tennis and track and field teams competed most often in invitational tournaments against nearby schools, not a home-and-away conference schedule.

While details are still being worked out, many of ECU’s Olympic teams will begin playing a conference schedule. That will substantially raise the level of competition for those teams—and the size of the budgets after accounting for additional travel expenses.

Other coaches talk about competing in the American
Track and field coach
Curt Kraft

“In our sport, we already were in a very competitive world with Central Florida and Tulsa; then you add these (old Big East) schools and it just became a much better league. I’ve been to about every facility in the league, and our Olympics Sports village facilities are right up there if not the best.”
Men’s golf coach
Press McPhaul

“The American could be one of the nation’s best conferences for men’s golf. UCF is a perennial top-20 team. Southern Methodist has made tremendous investments in their program’s infrastructure. So has Houston, which has won over 15 national titles. Tulsa is traditionally a top-40 program and is coached by Bill Brogden ’65, an ECU alumnus who is in the Golf Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Memphis and South Florida are both excellent programs. We have our work cut out for us to keep up in this league.”
Men’s tennis coach
Shawn Heinchon

“We are looking forward to being a very competitive tennis conference with several highly ranked national programs. We are one of the few sports that do not play a full conference schedule, and the American is looking at having us play a soft conference schedule (against) about half the teams in the league
each year.”

Soccer coach
Rob Donnenwirth

“There is no question that the American is a step up in talent level. I joked with the Memphis coach that we are getting the band back together again. We have had some big games through the years against Memphis, UCF, SMU and Tulsa. We also had big games years ago against Cincinnati and South Florida when they used to be in C-USA. All of the teams are well-coached, and there are some great facilities in the conference.”
Baseball coach
Billy Godwin

“I really believe this league has a chance to be a top baseball league. Only two of the schools—Connecticut and Temple—are unfamiliar to us in baseball. (The six former C-USA schools now in the American) competed for the league championship or were in the top half of the league year in and year out. I love the fact that we are centrally located from a travel standpoint.”
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