Men’s hoops ready for slam-dunk season

Senior forward Darrius Morrow puts back a rebound against Erskine last season at Minges Coliseum. -SID

Tomorrow night, the 80th season of Pirate basketball will tip-off inside Minges Coliseum as the Pirates play host to the Buffaloes of Milligan College.

By the standards set by the past two decades of Pirate basketball, the inaugural season of the Jeff Lebo era at ECU was an overwhelming success. Now, with the memories of last year’s 18-16 season still fresh in their minds, Pirate fans will shift their thoughts to a new question:

Can Lebo and this year’s Pirates squad author a sufficient sequel to last year’s breakout hit?

Here are a few keys to the Pirates being able to do just that:

The New Guys

Before the Pirates can build upon last year, they must replace a lot of lost productivity. Three of the top four scorers from a season ago graduated, taking with them approximately 37 points of the Pirates’ 66.6 points per game average.

This season, the Pirates have assembled a strong core of transfers, whose Division I experience should help them to bypass the learning curve and get straight to winning games. Guards Miguel Paul and Shamarr Bowden and forwards Maurice Kemp and Austin Steed all have played at the D-I level and have seen first-hand the speed of D-I basketball.

Freshmen Paris Roberts-Campbell, Yasin Kolo and Francis Edosomwan will join them in trying to recoup that lost scoring. It should be fun to watch and see who will emerge from this group to make the biggest splash.

The Core Guys

While there are new faces abound, there is some returning talent that the Pirates will look upon to help this team succeed. Junior backcourt-mates Erin Straughn and Corvonn Gaines both started 33 games last season for the Pirates, averaging a combined 11.7 points. Both Straughn and Gaines are now the senior members of the backcourt. With the new guys getting used to game action, look for the Pirates to lean on the experience of Straughn and Gaines early.

Also back is sophomore Robert Sampson. Sampson showed flashes of potential last year, but was extremely raw. This year, he’s added 15 pounds of muscle in hopes of becoming a more imposing figure. Sampson is extremely quick for his size, and it wouldn’t be a shocker to see his productivity increase this year as well.

The Big Guy

While those guys are figuring out their roles, Darrius Morrow knows his: lead and dominate. Morrow, who was named pre-season second-team All C-USA, is the top returning scorer from a season ago, and will be the number one option on the offensive end of the floor.

Last year’s Pirates played more of a perimeter game behind the shooting of Jontae Sherrod and Jamar Abrams. With those two gone, Morrow becomes the go-to guy in the middle. Time will tell if the shift to playing from the inside out will work, but if Morrow can keep up his play from the end of last year, the Pirates should be just fine.

The Schedule

One thing the Pirates should have going for them is their schedule heading into conference play. Their non-conference schedule includes two or three teams that you’ve probably never even heard of. Of their 13 non-conference games, only three are true road games (their Nov. 22 tilt with Appalachian State is at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte).

Early home games against UNC-Charlotte and Massachusetts will be challenging, and a road test at Old Dominion at the end of November will prove difficult, but there is no reason for the Pirates to head into conference play with any more than four losses … and even four would be a stretch. Heading into their first C-USA game at Southern Miss on Jan. 4 with a record of 12-1 or 11-2 would spell wonders for the confidence of this group, who are still trying to figure themselves out.

If this team can put all the pieces together and get some breaks along the way, there is no reason they can’t surprise some people just like they did last year.

If that happens, then, when the final chapter of the 2011-2012 season is completed, odds are that not only will Pirate fans enjoy this sequel, but also they won’t be able to wait for the third installment.

 

This writer can be contacted at sports@theeastcarolinian.com.

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