Inexperience will be a major issue for East Carolina, but coach Bill Herrion will send out his most talented club for another grind through Conference USA.
"We've now competed three years in this league," said Herrion, who enters his sixth season at the helm of the Pirates. "We've definitely closed the gap in terms of athletic ability. The question mark is that we lost several guys who played a lot and could put points on the board."
ECU is without seven players who contributed over 60 percent of last season's scoring.
Herrion is looking for senior defensive post presence Moussa Badiane and sophomore guard Mike Cook to step up their offensive production. The repeal of the 5/8 scholarship rule allowed Herrion and his staff to add several signees late in the recruiting period who should provide scoring punch from the perimeter.
FRONTCOURTThe 6-foot-10 Badiane is ECU's career leader in blocked shots with 239 in three seasons. His rejections bring a chorus of boo-like "Mous" from the fans in Williams Arena at Minges Coliseum. Badiane's role began to expand last season from shot-swatter to rebounder and scorer. His rebound average increased from 4.4 to 6.3 and his scoring average went from 6.9 to 8.5. ECU desperately needs for those upward trends to continue in his senior season as the Pirates must replace the scoring and board work of Gabriel Mikulas and Erroyl Bing.
The only other frontcourt veteran is 6-8 junior Corey Rouse, who has flashed potential but only averaged 4.3 points and 3.4 rebounds last season. The slender Rouse has occasionally been a defensive liability, and his attitude has needed work at times. "This is a very big year for Corey Rouse," Herrion said. "We all feel he has a lot of upside, but he's been playing behind Gabe [Mikulas] and Erroyl [Bing]. It's time for him to step up and be a player."
Junior college transfer Mike Castro will likely replace Bing, who averaged 9.3 points and 8.3 rebounds last season.
"He's older and more mature and comes from a very good junior college program," said the ECU coach. "He should give us exactly what we need -- a banger, a screener and a post defender."
Herrion is also counting on 6-10 freshman Charles Bronson for immediate help.
BACKCOURTThe Pirates made Cook a starter the last half of his rookie season. He responded by averaging 11.9 points in C-USA games and made the league's all-freshman team. Built like a strong safety, the 6-4, 220-pounder can play the point, shooting guard or even small forward.
"Mike Cook proved he can play in this league, but he has areas to improve on," Herrion said. "He needs to shoot the 3 better, and he's got to get better on the defensive end. He averaged 10.4 points last year. I've told him he needs to get 15 to 18 this year. He's capable of doing that."
Cook supplanted classmate Japhet McNeil in the starting lineup, but McNeil remains in the plans because of his playmaking ability and ball pressure on defense. Josh King, who hit a North Carolina record 416 3-pointers during his high school career, should give ECU a needed spot-up threat behind the arc.
Three more signees also will be in the mix for playing time. Marvin Kilgore, a left-handed combination guard, and wing players Tom Hammonds Jr., whose dad starred at Georgia Tech, and Jonathan Hart, who excels in transition, will increase ECU's athleticism and give Herrion some flexibility with his lineups.
FINAL ANALYSISAfter failing to qualify for the league tournament in '02-03, ECU won four of its final five regular season games last year to make C-USA's 12-team field.
"We've got to continue to make progress and that means winning games," said Herrion, who was given a one-year contract extension through 2008. "This league is vicious. The program wasn't overly successful in the [Colonial], so I feel we've made great strides."
C-USA is a challenging measuring stick.
"We played Louisville in the first round of the C-USA tournament [losing 61-54], and Louisville is typically as athletic as anybody," said the Pirates coach. "We played with them athletically. That's how far we've come."
New personnel contributing early and returning players filling more prominent roles will determine if ECU continues to progress.
"We're going to be young and inexperienced," Herrion said. "But we're going to be excitingly young and athletic."