Even in Conference USA, it is difficult to make it into the first division without top-notch talent. Just ask East Carolina’s Mack McCarthy.
The longtime head basketball coach, who won a combined 309 games at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga (243-122) and Virginia Commonwealth (66-55) has found the going tough at ECU, going 24-36 (10-22 in C-USA) the past two seasons.
Though the Pirates advanced from 10th place in the conference to ninth last year, and won two extra basketball games (13), the team simply didn’t have the size or athleticism to make their mark in a moderately strong C-USA last year.
McCarthy’s most talented player, Sam Hinnant, has exhausted his eligibility, taking along with him 15 ppg and 3.8 rpg. Hinnant led the team in points, field goals made and attempted (138 of 358), threes made and attempted (85 of 235), and was second on the teams in total assists (58).
Fellow starter James Legan was also a senior last year, and his 11.8 ppg were second on the team, while he was second in total steals, field goals, and treys. He and Hinnant will be missed, both for their production and for their leadership.
The Pirates’ biggest and best post threat, senior Chad Wynn, returns to the roster, for better or for worse. He has nice size, at 6’10”, 255 pounds, but he is not much of a threat to score (7.0 points per game in 2008-’09) though he led C-USA in field goal percentage (.592) and isn’t athletic enough to rebound very well (4.0 rebounds per game).
The four-guard set that Carolina ran for long stretches last year will likely be scrapped, with the continued maturation of sophomore Darrius Morrow (6’8”, 250).
Morrow, who started 11 games a season ago, ended the campaign averaging 9.7 ppg (fifth on the team), was the squad’s leading rebounder at 6.7 rpg, and finished second in the conference in offensive rebounds per night (3.1). He was named to the C-USA All Freshman team as a result.
The only problem with having he and Wynn start together is the fact that Wynn will take up space that Morrow could use to operate. Look for Morrow to pitch forward and Wynn to fade into the background as the season progresses, provided Morrow thrives.
Dynamic point guard Brock Young (pictured) returns to lead the attack. He led C-USA in assists per contest (7.6) as a sophomore, while also scoring 10.6 ppg, third on the team. He’ll step into the leadership vacuum left upon the graduation of Hinnant and Legan.
Expect him to be ably supported by junior Jamar Abrams, who was fourth on the team in scoring a season ago at 10 ppg, and who led the team in three-point field goal percentage (.426). He will be expected to shoulder more of the scoring burden this year.
The Pirates signed an intriguing four-man recruiting class which could step in and make contributions right away on a team that could use an infusion of size, length, and athleticism.
Coryonn Gaines, 6'4", younger brother of former Louisville All-American and first-round NBA pick Reece Gaines, joins the program from Worcester (Mass.) Academy prep. Gaines put his all-around game on display at Worcester, averaging 12 points, five rebounds, four assists, and two steals per contest.
ECU also picked up Erin Straughn, rated the No. 13 prospect in Florida’s Class of 2009 by HoopScoop , who has good size (6’6”, 200) and scored almost 17 ppg as a senior, as well as Wakefield Ellison, an explosive scorer (22.1 ppg) from North Carolina who also has good size (6’5”, 190) for a wing player.
Perhaps their prize recruit, however, is a Jarvis Varnado-like post player, Darius Morales from Timber Creek High in Orlando, Fla.
Morales, born in Puerto Rico, isn’t the biggest player (6’9”, 210) in the world, but he’s wiry and has a knack for the blocked shot (4.3 per game as a senior). Unfortunately for ECU, he’s also raw offensively (11.4 ppg), but he gets after it on the boards (9.8 rpg).
The schedule is a bit unkind. The Pirates drew a formidable Tennessee team in the opening round of the U.S. Virgin Islands Paradise Jam, with NCAA Tournament team Northern Iowa looming further in the draw.
There are home games with Clemson, George Washington, VCU, and Wake Forest, as well as a road contest against North Carolina-Charlotte, which renews an old rivalry this year. Their league games against UAB, UTEP, and Memphis are all on the road, while they draw single tilts with Houston and Tulsa at home at cozy Minges Coliseum, a notoriously difficult place to play.
The Pirates could be in for a regression in record this year. Despite a jackrabbit 8-1 start last season, and a 13-11 mark late in the year, six losses in a row to end the campaign doomed the club to a 13-17 overall ledger.
With the Paradise Jam this year almost certain to inflict at least two losses, not to mention other early tests that ECU will likely fail, tying last year’s mark seems overly ambitious.
In the final analysis, the Pirates will struggle to break into the upper echelon of C-USA. They don’t have the talent of Memphis, the depth of UTEP, or the experience of Tulsa. But Coach McCarthy’s charges do have a lot of upside. Anyone who takes them lightly will be in for a rude awakening.