East Carolina has enjoyed success at the Conference USA men’s basketball tournament in each of Jeff Lebo’s first two seasons as coach of the Pirates.
If ECU can continue the trend this week, it will reach rarified air in the annals of Pirate hoops history.
Fourth-seeded East Carolina (18-11) squares off with tourney host and No. 5 seed Tulsa (16-14) at 9:30 Thursday night in the BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla. If the Pirates, who have won four of their last five, beat the Golden Hurricane, they will reach the 19-win mark for only the third time since the program’s inception in 1931.
While Lebo has achieved several milestones, the coach insists the Pirates are not thinking about anything other than Tulsa.
“Teams who have some success (this time of year) are enthusiastic. They’re positive. They’re excited to be playing,” Lebo said in a phone interview after Wednesday’s practice in Tulsa. “It’s not dreary in practice. Our guys have been upbeat and positive and that’s the way you want to come into (games) when you’re playing in March. That’s the way we are right now and hopefully that’ll continue.”
Lebo said earlier in the week that ECU is playing its best basketball and the Pirates’ two best players – 6-foot-8 senior forward Maurice Kemp and 6-1 senior point guard Miguel Paul – are leading the charge.
Kemp, who became the first ECU player to make the All-C-USA first team on Monday, averages a team-high 18.4 points per game and has been better than that of late. He has averaged 24.3 in his past three outings. Paul has notched two consecutive double-doubles – he has six this season – and averages 13.1 points and a team-best 6.9 assists per game.
Akeem Richmond, a 6-foot junior guard, has been in a zone like few Pirates before him in the past month. Richmond, averaging 11.1 points, is averaging 20.8 per outing since a Feb. 16 loss at Southern Miss and has hit at least four 3-pointers in each of his past six games.
Richmond played in the Atlantic 10 tourney during his two seasons at Rhode Island and is looking forward to his first opportunity to suit up in the postseason with the Pirates.
“I know what to expect,” said Richmond, who has made a single-season school record 91 3s this season. “I know it’s a dogfight. Everybody’s out there just fighting for the same thing. ... I feel like we can do really well if we just come together as one unit.”
The Pirates, who won at Tulsa, 72-63, on Feb. 20, will face a balanced Hurricane attack led by 6-4 freshman James Woodard, who leads Tulsa in scoring (11.9 ppg) and rebounding (5.9 rpg). Pat Swilling Jr., a 6-2 junior guard, averages 10.8 points per contest and Connecticut transfer Scottie Haralson, a 6-4 senior guard, scores at a 10.4 ppg clip.
Four other Hurricane players average at least 6.6 points each.