By Bill Koch
The Cincinnati Enquirer
GREENVILLE, N.C. - East Carolina coach Bill Herrion is perceptive enough to know there were coaches in Conference USA who didn't think his program belonged in the league last season.
He also was smart enough to use that attitude as motivation for his players.
The Cincinnati Bearcats (11-3, 4-0 C-USA) play at East Carolina (10-5, 1-3) at 7 p.m. today at Minges Coliseum.
Before gaining access to the major-program status offered by C-USA, a status conferred largely because the league coveted the school's more successful football program, the Pirates were a mid-major program struggling in the Colonial Athletic Association.
"I know there were coaches and administrators that were upset when we came into the league for basketball," Herrion said. "We told our kids a lot of schools in this league don't think we belong. A lot of people wondered if we could even compete well enough to win a game in Conference USA."
The Pirates won five games in their inaugural C-USA season, all at home, including upsets of Louisville and Marquette. In the process, they established a homecourt advantage considered one of the league's best.
UC was the first C-USA school to discover how uncomfortable the Pirates could make things for their opponents. The Bearcats trailed by as many as 11 points in the first half last season before rallying for a 10-point victory.
Senior Leonard Stokes rates 8,000-seat Minges Coliseum with Charlotte, Marquette and Memphis as the toughest places to play in C-USA.
"It's a smaller gym and it's real loud in there," Stokes said. "Everywhere we go it's loud, but places like East Carolina, Charlotte and Marquette, those places are especially loud. It's like a 20-point difference for them between being home and away."
No.20 Marquette again fell victim to the East Carolina homecourt on Dec.30, dropping a 73-70 decision there.
"It's just a different arena," said Marquette coach Tom Crean. "It's a smaller venue. When we've been there, it's been filled to capacity. They have a very good team and their crowd gives them great energy. The fans surround you."
Said Herrion: "We're the only show in town. We've improved as a team and as a program. Last year, a lot of our fans really came out to see Cincinnati and Bob Huggins when they were nationally ranked, to see Louisville and Rick Pitino or Marquette. What's happening now is that our fans are coming out to see us."
The Bearcats, winners of six straight, are expecting a difficult time, but they say they've learned to expect fired-up crowds wherever they go.
"It's that way every game for us," said UC coach Bob Huggins. "It doesn't matter where we go, it ends up being that way. If you got into an environment like they have at East Carolina and that's the only time you have it all year, it makes it that much more difficult. But we do it all the time. I think our guys are a little better prepared for it."
The Pirates got off to a quick start this season, winning their first seven games. But they have lost three in a row and five of their last eight, including an 87-70 loss at home to No.9 Louisville last week.
"What we're finding is that even though we're an improved team, we have to play a certain way in this league to give our kids a chance," Herrion said. "We cannot play up and down like we did against Louisville. We have to slow things down."
The Pirates limit their opponents to 39.8 percent shooting. Center Moussa Badiane (6feet10) leads the league in block shots with 2.8 per game. Offensively, junior guard Derrick Wiley leads East Carolina with 14.5 points a game.
Coach: Bob Huggins (343-103, 14th season; 511-175 overall).
Coach: Bill Herrion (46-55, fourth season; 213-126.)
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