East Carolina basketball coach Joe Dooley has been counting the days to the season opener at home against VMI on Nov. 5. He’s looking ahead, not so much like a child anticipates Christmas, but more like a contractor working to pull a building project together on schedule.
With an influx of new players, there is a long way to go and a relatively short time to get there.
Much of the roster from a 10-21 team that was 3-15 in the American Athletic Conference has left the program. There are 11 new players as the Pirates seek significant improvement.
“We evaluated our roster and where we want to go,” Dooley said. “We needed to get bigger on the wings and up front, a little more athletic. Hopefully, we’ve accomplished that.We look, even without Seth (LeDay) and J.J. (Miles) out there yet, we look a lot bigger and a whole lot more athletic. The floor looks a lot smaller in a good way.”
Rules prohibiting summer workouts with coaches have changed in recent years and Dooley values that opportunity.
“You want to get some of your core stuff in and yet you’re trying to figure out who we are,” Dooley said. “I have an idea. … There are some things that you put in defensively from shell (drill) and those type of deals that you know you’re going to do.
“Letting them play some 3-on-3 and 4-on-4 has given us a pretty good look at some of the things we can do.
“I saw today (Tuesday), it’s 126 days to the start of the season. It’s bearing down and yet it’s not. You’re still trying to get a feel for what guys can process and what we can do. I think that will be an ongoing process.”
Seth LeDay recovering
Seth LeDay, a transfer from Virginia Tech, averaged 11.0 points and 5.8 rebounds before a late-season knee injury sidelined him in 2018-19.
“The doctors and trainers have been very happy,” Dooley said. “He’s back to where he can jump and shoot. He’s doing some running. Obviously, controlled running. He’s not where he’s cleared to work out with any contact. He’s ahead of probably what we had hoped. That being said, the doctors make those decisions, but he’s able to do some shooting, dribbling and some movement stuff. His body type, he is a fast twitch (muscle fiber) type guy, which helps in the recovery. He’s progressing very well.”
Jayden Gardner was ECU’s leading scorer (16.3) and rebounder (8.5) as a freshman, although he is an undersized post player at 6 feet, 6 inches. The Pirates have brought in several legitimate paint performers in terms of size.
“A couple of things,” Dooley said. “One thing is that it also means (Gardner) doesn’t have to guard a center. That’s the main thing. With Ludgy (Debaut, 6-11), Charles (Coleman, 6-11) and Edra (Luster, 6-11), you’ve got bigger bodies that depending on the matchups can play that. With Jayden, it continues to allow him to expand his game. The good thing is the competitiveness of practice with him. He’s got to guard Bitumba (Baruti, 6-7) or Miles James (6-6) or these other guys. If there’s a switch down, he’s guarding Charles or Ludgy. It makes for a whole different matchup type deal.”
Coleman is highly regarded after choosing the Pirates over some noteworthy programs, including Duke.
“He’s going to be a good player down the road,” Dooley said. “He’s like all big guys. He hasn’t had a chance. You see some things in drills and you’re like, ‘Wow.’ Has it translated? No, because it’s early. There’s going to be some good stretches early. There’ll be some bad stretches. Obviously, he has to learn to play without fouling. I don’t think in one regard, in a positive way, that he realizes he’s 6-11 and 253 pounds. In high school, guys get like punished by getting fouls called on them when they hit somebody. Now, it’s like if you don’t hit somebody, you’re in trouble.
“He’s a big, big body. He’s a willing learner. I think he’s a quick learner. It’s just going to take some time and some reps like it does with all these guys. I’ve been impressed with Ludgy’s motor, how he can run. He shoots the ball better than I thought. Those numbers won’t lie here in a month or so and he’s bouncy. I do think that we’ll have some guys around the rim.”
Coleman said the relationship he developed with ECU coaches was influential in his college choice.
“I think there’s a lot of things that go into these deals,” Dooley said. “We got in there early. There’s a comfort level. I think that he feels he can make an impact. I think something, as we go forward, … how do we think outside the box and how do we use those deals. How do we use a little thing like Kevin Durant going to the Nets? Everybody was thinking he would go to the Lakers or the Knicks. We’ve got to try to be creative and find guys who want to think outside the box and we’ve got to think outside the box as coaches.”
Reaction to UConn move
Connecticut won the NCAA Tournament in the AAC’s first year in 2014. The Huskies plan to return to the Big East after the upcoming academic year.
“I don’t think it was much of a surprise,” Dooley said. “I think the league was anticipating that, preparing for it. Obviously, it is what it is and they’re gone, so we’ll just go ahead and prepare. We only play them once this year. They come down here. … I think the UConn fans and those people wanted them playing closer. Obviously, they have a history with the Big East, so I just think they felt more comfortable there.”
The Pirates know who they will play in the AAC and when although dates of the game are still to be announced.
“We’ve got all the games,” Dooley said. “We just don’t have the dates. I think we’ve got Houston and UConn here. Obviously, we go to Wichita State and Memphis.
“The league has done a good job of trying to make sure that they try to sort of tier it. We’ve got to work our way up to a better tier, so we can have some of those teams come back towards our place. Last year we were fortunate, we played Memphis twice. I think with their recruiting class, they’ll have high expectations. I’ve seen them in some preseason Top 10s. Obviously, Houston, if they get Quentin Grimes eligible right away as a transfer from Kansas, that shifts the dynamics a little bit of their team because they lost their backcourt.
“It’s interesting, losing Connecticut, but six of the 12 teams were in a postseason tournament last year. UConn came in what, eighth or ninth place? I think it just shows how strong our league is.”
Trip to Bahamas
ECU plays in the Bahamas Showcase, Nov. 22-24, meeting Evansville in the first round.
“When we were looking for exempt tournaments, one of the promoters talked to us,” Dooley said. “It seemed like a good situation. It’s actually a beautiful set up. I think it will be good experience for our guys. It’s a promoter that we’ve worked with before. When we’ve been in some of his events before, they’ve all been first class, so we knew that it would be a good situation. That’s a real good situation for our guys. It will be pretty cool. I think everybody thinks we’re going on vacation, but there won’t be much beach going. It will be a nice business trip for our guys and experience for our guys.”
Game at Navy
The Pirates will participate in the Veterans Classic on Friday, Nov. 8, at 8:30 p.m., against host Navy. Davidson and Auburn will meet in the preceding game.
“The league had alerted us about that,” Dooley said. “We followed up and some people that had been involved in it before said it’s an unbelievable experience. We get to take our guys up to Annapolis. They’ll take us on a tour of campus and we’ll eat a meal with the Midshipmen. We’ll have a little bit of a background on what it takes to be a student at the Naval Academy. Obviously, it’s very humbling. We’ll see what they do for us on a daily basis. It will be a really great experience for our guys to see what these young men and women are doing for us on a daily basis.”
The focus of summer workouts has been different as ECU tunes up for Dooley’s second season since returning as head coach.
“This year, we’ve done it a little bit differently,” Dooley said. “When I was in Florida (Gulf Coast) and with Coach (Bill) Self (at Kansas) we did a lot of offensive skill stuff. We’ve done more team stuff. With the amount of new guys, we need to be on top of that, teaching some things where there’s not a familiarity. We’ve been able to get some things in. We’ll continue to move. We don’t need to move too quick. We’d rather get good at a few things, expand and put some concepts in. The other thing is just to be cognizant of wearing your guys out too early.
“I think the rule where you’re allowed to work with your guys is great. You can also get to the point that over-contact or over-usage can wear you out in February or March. I thought we had a lot of things we needed to get better at last year but I don’t think conditioning was one of them. The guys did a good job of getting in shape and staying in shape. I don’t think that was a factor much. If we can continue with what we’ve done, we’ll just gradually build toward the season.”
Plans for the Fourth
Dooley’s Independence Day plans involved exercise, family and food.
“I’m going to, hopefully, hang out, with my wife (Tanya) and my son (Max), and our two dogs, get a nice workout and then probably barbecue in the backyard,” Dooley said. “Some cardio, some lifting, then when it gets cooler, try to take the dogs for a walk.”