Before we get into our regularly scheduled look at the 2019-20 ECU Pirates, I’ll apologize for being so bad about posting these on weekends, most recently missing previews for Tulsa and USF. Please accept my heartfelt apologies.
On a superficial level you wouldn’t expect ECU to be a program that’s struggled mightily not just to make the NCAA Tournament, but finish seasons with a non-losing record.
To wit, in 55 seasons as a full-fledged Division 1 member ECU men’s basketball has 13 winning seasons and 2 NCAA Tournament appearances total. The most recent appearance came in the 1992-93 season as the result of a surprise run in the CAA tournament and the Pirates capturing the auto bid for the NCAAs. In fact, both of the Pirates’ NCAA Tournament seasons ended with the team having a losing record.
Sustaining any kind of success in Greenville on the hardwood has been near impossible. Jeff Lebo had 2 winning seasons, including the program’s only ever 20+ win season, but couldn’t even get the program back to .500 after winning the 2013 postseason CIT.
You could do worse than hiring the only guy to leave (or get asked to leave) this program with a non-losing record: Joe Dooley. As one of the youngest coaches in Division 1, Dooley guided the Pirates to 34 wins and top 4 CAA finishes his first 2 seasons but was fired in 1999 after sub-.500 finishes in the next 2.
After that dismissal Dooley worked as an assistant, highlighted by a decade under Bill Self with the Kansas Jayhawk program. In 2013 Dooley was given the unenviable task of succeeding program icon Andy Enfield at Florida Gulf Coast. His teams won 20+ games every year and made the NCAA or NIT 4 out of 5 seasons.
Dooley’s first year in Greenville was a tough one, despite a shock home upset of league contender Cincinnati. The Pirates only managed to get 2 more AAC wins, both against Tulane, and the coaching staff basically pushed the ‘reset button’ on the roster.
Sophomore Jayden Gardner is the only scholarship player who played on the 2018-19 team still with the program. Gardner has been one of the AAC’s most productive players since he took the court last year and currently leads the Pirates in scoring (20.9 points/game), rebounding (9.3 rebounds/game) and field goal % (55.6).
What makes Gardner so remarkable is he’s such a high percentage of his team’s output, yet he’s still one of the top 100 players in the country in metrics like true shooting % and effective field goal %. He is scoring in volume and yet still efficiently, which seems impossible when you consider how every ECU opponent is game planning around defending Gardner first and foremost.
The specific aspect of this game I’ll be interested to watch is a Cougar defense that can get a little foul happy defending Gardner, who’s currently 5th nationally drawing 7.3 fouls per 40 minutes. In 2018-19 the Coogs held Gardner to 22 points, while going 8 for 22 from the field in the 2 games these 2 teams played. I wouldn’t normally devote 3 paragraphs to 1 player, but that’s how important Gardner has been to the Pirates.
For Pirate fans the good news about the rest of the supporting cast is that its quite young. Dooley and his staff brought in a good mix of high schoolers, Jucos and 4-year transfers in his 11-man signing class. Behind Gardner, the top 2 scorers are freshmen: Brandon Suggs and Tristen Newton.
Suggs is averaging just under 10 points despite only playing 24 minutes per game as a 6’6” ‘tweener. Newton, who hails from El Paso, leads the Pirates in assists and is 2nd 3-point field goal % (31.3). The Pirates’ upset home win over SMU earlier in January came courtesy of a Newton 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Junior college transfers Tremont Robinson-White and Tyrie Jackson both missed the early part of this season and the pair have started the last 13 games. Robinson-White also has 3 years of eligibility, mitigating some of the roster churn you get from taking Juco players. Junior JJ Miles has been the Pirates’ best 3-point shooter and was 7 for 9 from beyond the arc in last Saturday’s win over Tulane.
The Pirates were an abysmal offensive team last year and while they’ve improved in a lot of areas they’re still 327th nationally in 3-point FG % (29.3) and 264th in effective field goal % (47.2). They’ll definitely want to play the game at a faster pace than the Coogs usually play as the Pirates are 56th in Adjusted Tempo. Of all the things I’m concerned about in facing ECU though, tempo is not one of them.
Tonight’s game will be the first time the Coogs have played an opponent outside the KenPom top 200 since the team defeated Portland 81-56 at the opener of the Diamond Head Classic on December 23.
On this week’s Pawdcast I said that for the first time in the 5th season of doing the show I think the building blocks are there for ECU to eventually be a respectable AAC team. I don’t know if it means tonight’s game will be competitive, but it’ll surprise me a lot less than it would’ve the last few years if that indeed ends up being the case.