There are several conclusions can be taken away from East Carolina’s 76-65 loss at American Athletic Conference favorite Central Florida on Sunday.
First and foremost is the fact that the Pirates’ young star Jayden Gardner is an elite talent and as new coach Joe Dooley observed after last week’s home upset of Cincinnati, “a guy to build around.”
The stocky 6-foot-6 forward scored 35 points and pulled down 20 rebounds against the Knights to became only the second freshman in conference history to score that many points in a game and the first rookie to record as many rebounds.
With three 30-plus point games to his credit already this season, Gardner is well on his way to becoming the AAC’s Rookie of the Year. But as good as he is and figures to get as his career progresses, he can only do so much on his own.
It was obvious from Sunday’s performance that as improved as the Pirates already are, they still need to recruit more talent to put around Gardner. They also need more size to battle on the boards and defend inside, and more experience among the players already on the roster in order to consistently compete with and beat the best teams in their league.
The popular narrative on the subject of accomplishing those goals is that it’s easier said than done to attract top talent to Greenville because of its proximity to all those higher profile programs that surround it in the state.
While it’s true that the best of the best will naturally be attracted to North Carolina, Duke, N.C. State, Wake Forest and other regional and national powers, there’s still plenty of talent to go around within our borders. Gardner, a graduate of Heritage High School in Wake Forest, is proof of that.
Because of the strength and exposure of the AAC, which regularly places multiple teams in the national rankings and NCAA tournament bracket, it can also be an attractive landing spot for imported talent such as Arkansas product Shawn Williams — the 2018 conference Rookie of the Year — Virginia native K.J. Davis and Texas product Seth LeDay.
The fact that all of those players, including Gardner, were signed by former coach Jeff Lebo, shows that recruiting to ECU isn’t as difficult as most night believe. The hard part has been keeping the best of those talented players in purple and gold long enough for them to develop into a winning unit.
Just look at all the players that have come and gone from the Pirates over the past 2-3 years and what they’re doing now.
Elijah Hughes, for example, is currently the second-leading scorer for a Syracuse team that will almost certainly finish in the top half of the Atlantic Coast Conference. The 6-foot-6 wing is averaging 15 points, 4.8 rebounds and 32.3 minutes per game for the Orange.
Guards Jeremy Sheppard and Raquan Wilkins, both of whom were suspended last season before leaving the program, are excelling at junior colleges as they work to earn another Division I opportunity.
Sheppard, a 2017 AAC All-Freshman team selection, is averaging 16.7 points and 4.2 assists while shooting 43 percent from 3-point range for the College of Central Florida while Wilkins is scoring at an 18 point per game clip at Lee College in Texas. Wilkins scored 48 points in a game earlier this season to earn national junior college Player of the Week honors.
That trio would provide the makings of a formidable lineup even without forward Brandan Stith, whose eligibility is up but who earned All-Conference USA recognition at Old Dominion after leaving ECU following his freshman season of 2014.
While there are many reasons for players leaving, sometimes not of their own choice, those recent departures emphasize that in addition to going out and recruiting new talent, Dooley and his staff must make a concerted effort to retain the core of young players already in the program.
Gardner is clearly a centerpiece around which a winning program can be built. The job now is to do everything possible — from surrounding him with talented teammates to filling the stands for home games at Minges Coliseum — to make sure that the program he transforms is ECU’s and not someone else’s.
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