Although the start of its season is still several months away, the East Carolina men's basketball team just completed its third week of summer workouts.Due to NCAA rules, fifth-year coach Jeff Lebo is permitted just two hours per week with his team over an eight-week span, which may not necessarily provide ample time to get a lot of work done, but it does allow him an opportunity to get acquainted with this year's squad.
With the second summer school session at ECU beginning Thursday, it was the first time the 2014 class of freshmen worked out with their new teammates and new strength and conditioning coach, Matthew Slachetka.
"It is nice to have access to your players over the summer time. They've been working hard and trying to get ahead academically," said Lebo.
Among the crop of freshmen is Lebo's first top-100 recruit at ECU: Hollywood, Fla. point guard Lance Tejada. A capable scorer in the backcourt, Tejada will be called on immediately to replace a portion of the scoring left by the school's all-time three-point leader, Akeem Richmond.
Another newcomer from a Fla. school — Florida State transfer Terry Whisnant, who is originally from Cherryville, N.C. — will be asked to do the same.
While he sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules, the 6-foor-3 shooting guard received high praise from his teammates and coaches for his three-point shooting prowess, in addition to his ability to drive to the rim."He's not a guy who will be in awe when he steps on the floor with guys who have big reputations and have won a lot of games nationally," said Lebo, who's team will face the defending-champion Connecticut Huskies twice next season. "He can be a real difference maker I think for us, but it's going to take time."
The Pirates were without a true post player after losing a pair of forwards due to transfers, another for personal reasons and two more due to injury last season.
One of the players lost to injury was promising forward Marshall Guilmette, who suffered a season-ending knee injury following ECU's narrow loss at Cameron Indoor Stadium five games into the year.
Fortunately, the 6-foot-10 Guilmette, who also missed games his freshman year with a hip flexor injury, was granted a medical extension on his eligibility — he has three years remaining — and although he's had nearly eight months to recover, there are still concerns about his health.
"We've got to get Marshall healthy. He's still not a full go yet," Lebo said.
If healthy, Guilmette will be joined on the front line by rising junior Michael Zangari, who progressed into an effective back-to-the-basket scorer towards the end of last season, transfers Keith Armstrong (Robert Morris), Michel Nzege (Winston-Salem State) and Kanu Aju (City College of San Fransisco), in addition to incoming freshman Grant Bryant.
Next Tuesday, ECU will officially join the American Athletic Conference, which featured four NCAA Tournament basketball teams, an NIT Tournament finalist (Southern Methodist) and, of course, the aforementioned national champions at UConn last season.The league's commissioner Mike Aresco spoke highly of ECU's progression in basketball while on his visit to Greenville and feels the upgrade in exposure will take the program to new heights — referencing the American's television deal with ESPN.
"You've got a bunch of schools coming that will elevate the program. When you have to compete against schools like that, it elevates your program. It's that simple," Aresco said during a news conference Tuesday.
"Last year, they had five teams in the top 25 at one time. That's quite a jump up for us," Lebo said. "I think a lot of people, regionally, know about East Carolina, but, nationally, not a lot of people know about the Pirate Nation.
"I think this new league and particularly the television coverage we're going to get nationally … will really help us get our brand out not just regionally, but nationally."
Time will only tell whether or not the Pirates' brand becomes more nationally recognizable. But in a state that prides itself for college basketball excellence, ECU is taking the necessary steps towards being relevant.
Despite going into next season with some question marks, Pirate basketball matters now, the program's fan base has grown exponentially in recent years and its success seems to have followed suit.