Big East? Conference USA? Whatever.
Jeff Lebo will be happy when this national college conference upheaval is finally over so he will know what league his East Carolina basketball team will call home.
“I’m like everybody else, I read about it, I hear about it, but I don’t have any say in it and I don’t know what is going to happen,” the second-year Pirates coach said Thursday during a break from the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools Education Foundation annual meeting, at which he was the main speaker. “It’s so frustrating because everything is happening so slowly. I wish it would just all happen so we could move on.
“It makes my head spin just thinking about it.”
Right now, ECU is a member of Conference USA. But the school has made formal application to join the Big East, which is seeking new members after recently losing Syracuse and Pitt to the ACC in the conference realignment wars.
“We’re happy in Conference USA, but for a lot of reasons going to the Big East makes a lot of sense for our athletic program because of what is going on nationally,” Lebo said.
Among the benefits for the Pirates basketball team would be playing in a more prestigious league, receiving improved TV exposure and reducing travel expenses, since Big East schools are more closely clustered than those of Conference USA, which stretches from Greenville south to Florida and west to Texas and Oklahoma.
But there’s no question a move to the Big East would also present a stiffer challenge for Lebo, who turned the traditional doormat ECU team into a winner in his first season on the job.
“It’s a whole different situation,” said Lebo, who recorded a number of firsts while going 18-16 last year; including first winning season since 1997, first non-losing conference record, first win over Memphis and first Conference USA tournament victory. “You’ve got all of those northeastern schools with rich basketball traditions and so many great players.
“We don’t have that yet. We’re still trying to establish a winning tradition.”
East Carolina has recognized that Lebo is on track to do just that. Last month the school gave him a contract extension that will keep Lebo in Greenville through the 2018-19 season.
If the Pirates wind up in the Big East, it may take him that long to get them to the level they are playing at in Conference USA.
“When a team changes leagues, it takes years to get acclimated to the travel, the teams, the style of play,” Lebo said.
It also takes time to acquire the type of players who can perform in the Big East, which turns out a host of NBA draft picks every year.
“No question you have to get great players to compete with the Big East schools,” said Lebo, a four-year starter for Dean Smith at North Carolina in the early 1980s. “But in basketball, one guy can change everything. You also have to get lucky and find guys flying under the radar that you can develop. I think we’ll be able to recruit what we need. It’s a great, storied conference. Kids are going to want to play in the league.”
Lebo is already having an outstanding recruiting year, having received commitments from several prized big men to play next season.
Signing better players was step two in Lebo’s redevelopment plan in Greenville. Step one was bringing pride and credibility to the program.
“When I took the job, a lot of people told me all the reasons why we couldn’t do it there,” he said. “But from playing in the state and having a wife from Williamston and a father-in-law who played at East Carolina, I knew that the fans in North Carolina are educated. If you put a product out there where you are playing hard and playing the right way, they’ll support you.
“There was no pride in wearing an East Carolina basketball shirt when I got there. In fact, you couldn’t even find one. The players were beaten down. They didn’t have a lot of pride. But now they feel good about themselves, they know they can win. They feel like they belong.
“Our kids know they have a long way to go, but it’s nice to see the change in their body language.
“That’s what’s most gratifying to me.”
With three returning starters and some solid recruits, Lebo, who came to ECU from Auburn, where he was fired after a half-dozen seasons, is focusing on bringing the Pirates into the top half of Conference USA this year.
“We have proven that we can beat some of the top teams in the league, now we want to finish in the top half and continue to stay there,” Lebo said.