GREENVILLE – Jeff Lebo is bringing his East Carolina program to the same court where he starred for North Carolina under Dean Smith and Roy Williams.
Lebo’s Pirates (6-1) are making their first trip to Chapel Hill on Saturday to play the No. 21 Tar Heels, while Lebo is facing his alma mater for the second time in 15 seasons as a head coach.
“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 said. “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, in his third season leading the Pirates, played at UNC (7-2) from 1985-89 under Smith.
Williams was an assistant to Smith during Lebo’s first three seasons before taking over at Kansas.
Despite being about 100 miles apart, the instate programs have met only twice before due to Smith’s policy of not scheduling instate opponents.
The only meeting during Smith’s 36-year tenure came in the first round of the 1993 NCAA Tournament.
Williams, now in his 10th season as UNC’s coach, said Lebo first called asking if the Tar Heels would play the Pirates in ECU’s Minges Coliseum.
“My deal is, we’ll play, but I’m not going to go play on your court because we can’t do that for everybody (instate),” Williams said. “If you’re opening up a building or something like that, we’ll try to help you. ... But they decided they wanted to come here and play, and it was pretty easy, a 15-minute conversation.”
The game will also be the first meeting between Lebo and Williams, though they had tried at least twice before to set up a game.
Williams’ move to UNC in 2003 nixed a deal for Kansas to play at Chattanooga while Lebo was coach there. Williams later agreed to bring UNC to play Lebo at Auburn as the school opened a new arena – a plan that fell through once Lebo was fired in 2010.
Lebo’s first game against UNC was an 85-59 loss in Chapel Hill while he was at Tennessee Tech during the 1999-2000 season.
“You’ve got to remember now: Coach is going to do anything for a lot of the former players that he can,” Lebo said. “There’s so many of us now that are coaching in the state that he can return every game. It’s impossible for him to do that. He tries to play as many and helps as many people. He has been unbelievably gracious to me, in tough times, too.
“He has had a lot of former guys come back and play there. Not a lot of us have won back there. He doesn’t treat you too good once the game starts.”
As a player, Lebo helped the Tar Heels go 116-25 with two Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season titles and one tournament championship.
Lebo’s teams reached at least the NCAA round of 16 every year and twice made a regional final.
Lebo also played in the Smith Center’s first game – a Duke-UNC rivalry matchup – as a freshman in January 1986.
He ranks 24th in career scoring (1,567 points), second in career 3-point shooting percentage (42.8) and fourth in career free-throw shooting percentage (83.9) in the program’s storied history.
East Carolina point guard Miguel Paul said he hadn’t seen any extra excitement from Lebo or change in his coach’s demeanor leading up to this one.
Paul also didn’t sound intimidated by the prospect of playing the tradition-rich Tar Heels on their home court.
“We’re excited, man,” Paul said. “We know how good they are and they’re just a great program and the basketball tradition is very high there. So we’re just planning on going in there and giving a good show and this is a big opportunity to get our name on the board, too.”