The complete record of East Carolina game dates has only been kept since 1960, but it’s a fun fact that in those 58 years no Pirate basketball season has started as early as this one. Five years ago, the first game was played on November 8, but November 6 sets a new standard.
Not that I’m complaining. I’m one of those sports fans who believes that college basketball is the sun around which everything else revolves.
When first the women’s team, then the men’s, took the court at Minges Coliseum Wednesday night to launch their seasons, the crowd swelled as the night went on. The opponents — Maryland-Eastern Shore for the women and Delaware State for the men — never presented a major threat to the Pirates, but the arena was nonetheless thick with hope from a fan base that has endured a disheartening autumn.
Both hoops squads will do it all again Friday, with the women tipping off against Monmouth at 5:30 p.m. and the men playing James Madison at 7:45 p.m.
In this brief period, with just one season-opening victory in the books and heaps of promise ahead, I present a few random observations about the basketball story these Pirates are hoping to write in the coming months:
The youth movement is here.
Joe Dooley, coaching his first game in his second act at the helm of the Pirates, said that he is still tinkering with lineups. He is also faced with the absence of Shawn Williams, the American Athletic Conference rookie of the year last season, who has been suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules.
But on Tuesday against the Hornets, Dooley chose to start three freshmen — Tyler Foster, Jayden Gardner and Tae Hardy. The three combined for 20 points and 17 rebounds, and despite some first-game jitters Dooley saw plenty to like in their confidence and tenacity.
“One thing is they’re not afraid, I think that’s the number one thing, that they’re not afraid to be out there,” he said. “We’re going to have some stretches where we look bad because we’ve got so many young guys, and to tell you the truth they’re trying to figure out what we want.”
The women’s team features more experience; the ECU roster features four seniors and four juniors and just one freshman. Interim head coach Chad Killinger credits his seasoned players with lending stability through the team’s leadership transition, especially because they have already had success with the schemes Killinger has continued from former coach Heather Macy’s tenure.
“From a defensive standpoint, we’re really trying not to do too many different things at this point in the season,” Killinger said. “We’re just trying to get better at a lot of the little things.”
The ECU coaches are far from satisfied.
Dooley and Killinger were glad to notch the wins, but for both of them the white-hot light of game night illuminated the issues they need to address with more difficult opponents ahead. Dooley started his postgame press conference by conceding that he shouldn’t rain on a victory, but he also approached Wednesday’s practice determined to shore up the weaknesses he spotted against DSU.
“We did play hard, I thought there were some really great stretches and I thought there were some stretches where we were really disorganized on defense, which worried me,” Dooley said. “They had some looks and some chances at the rim that they should have converted, and we’ve got to clean that up quickly. In our guys’ defense, I think we were a little sped up and a little nervous, early.
“First time playing in front of a crowd with a lot of young guys, I think we did some uncharacteristic things that we had not done.”
Killinger established six goals for his players going into the game, and the team met four of them, only falling short on number of deflections and offensive rebounding percentage. Like Dooley, he will be particularly focused on eliminating the shakiness on defense.
Sophomore Lashonda Monk knows the importance of defense too, saying, “I think our defense definitely has to get better. It was OK for the first game, but once we play a different opponent our defense has to get better.”
At least one Pirate freshman is a natural-born storyteller.
Hardy, the top-scoring freshman on Tuesday with 11 points, had an opportunity to field questions from the media after the game, and he showed a knack for succinctly helping his listener understand the process of adjusting to his first Division I college game.
Explained Hardy: “That first game as a freshman, little jitterbugs were in the stomach at first. I got a little time in, I was comfortable. I was ready, in the starting lineup. A couple minutes in, a little shaky. As time kept going on in the game, comfortable. Second nature. Basketball.”
The fans can change things.
Considering the opening night games were against little-known opponents, on a weeknight, on a date when most people are still only thinking about football, the crowds were surprisingly vocal and excited about what the purple-clad players were doing on the court.
“That’s great, that means they’re starting to believe in us, have faith,” said senior Isaac Fleming. “We just don’t want to let the fans down, just keep giving them what they came for.”
The women’s game crowd started out slowly and got better, presumably as people got off work, but the players know they have two primary means to pack Minges — either spread the word around campus to anyone who will listen or keep winning.