CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Despite the rougly 100-mile distance, East Carolina has never played at North Carolina in men’s basketball.
It took only a 15-minute phone conversation between Pirates coach Jeff Lebo (who played for the Tar Heels from 1985-89) and UNC coach Roy Williams (who was a Tar Heels assistant when Lebo played) to change all that. Lebo's Pirates play at No. 21 UNC on Saturday.
“It's exciting to go back, and it's exciting for our players to give them an opportunity to play on that stage, in that atmosphere,’’ Lebo told reporters Thursday. “I think it's going to be really helpful to our team and to our players. I think it's something they'll remember, and they're really looking forward to this game.”
Lebo, who ranks 24th in career scoring (1,567 points) at UNC and is second in career 3-point shooting percentage (42.8), actually played in the first game at the Smith Center as a freshman in January 1986. Ultimately, he helped the Tar Heels go 116-25 with two ACC season titles and one tournament championship during his career.
This won’t be his first return to his college arena; in 1999-2000, he brought his Tennessee Tech team back to the Smith Center and lost 85-59. But it will be his first time facing off against Williams.
Originally, Lebo hoped Williams might bring the Tar Heels to play at ECU (6-1) in Greenville, N.C. But the UNC coach has a policy of not going on the road to face nonconference in-state opponents (unless they’re opening a new arena), “because we can’t do that for everybody in-state.”
Lebo said he understands why Williams has that philosophy and is just glad the game is being played, although he knows it will be a tough test for his Pirates. UNC leads the all-time series 2-0.
"He's had a lot of former guys [Tar Heel players who became coaches] come back and play there,’’ Lebo said. “Not a lot of us have won back there. He doesn't treat you too good once the game starts."
A few things to watch during Saturday’s noon ET tipoff:
THE ‘5’ SPOT
There’s been a lot written about UNC’s revolving door at center recently, but it’s going to be interesting to see whether Williams makes a full-time choice between Desmond Hubert, Brice Johnson and Joel James before the start of the ACC season. If so, that means the trio has only four more nonconference games to prove themselves.
James has started the past two games; Hubert has started six overall and Johnson has started once.
UNC’s freshman starting point guard, who is averaging 7.3 points and 3.8 assists, continues to grow more and more comfortable, but every game helps. Asked to describe Paige’s confidence, Williams called it “OK.”
“I think that he’s not playing the way he wants to play or the way he thought he was going to play, but I think that happens to every freshman,’’ Williams said. “… His junior year [in high school] he had 10 seniors with him and he was still the best player, but he sort of led them around and made baskets and the whole bit. And then last year, all of a sudden he was the only senior and he had to score 30 a game for them to have a chance.
“Now he’s back doing some things with some older guys at a much higher level, quicker, faster, all that kind of stuff, so his last three years have been widely different for him. But I think he’s a confident youngster. I think he realizes that he’s getting better and better every day. I think he’s been amazed at how little he did know. But like I said this the first day, he’s going to be really good.”
ECU senior forward Maurice Kemp ranks fourth in Conference USA in scoring with 16.7 ppg. … Senior guard Shamarr Bowden ranks sixth nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio (5.8). … The Pirates have never beaten a ranked opponent on the road, and have lost 18 in a row overall to ranked foes.