With eleven new players on their roster, there’s no doubt that the preseason held some moments of consternation for the East Carolina basketball coaches. But Tuesday’s media day revealed nothing but big smiles, bright white uniforms and descriptions of the team’s upgrade with its new personnel.
After head coach Joe Dooley gave a standing-room-only press conference, the lobby of the Smith-Williams Center was abuzz with two activities: player interviews and green-screen cameos for each player led by ECU’s video production and social media staffers.
Every player was instructed to yell a phrase at top volume, something like, “Let’s Go!” or “And One!” It was fittingly chaotic for a program packed with new faces and marked by optimistic uncertainty about the personality of the team under game conditions.
With the season opener against Virginia Military Institute in just two weeks, the staff’s emphasis has been on teaching the schemes and instilling the team’s culture even while key contributors, like lone senior Seth LeDay and newcomer Tremont Robinson-White, have been forced to watch from the sidelines as they recover from injuries.
“The most we’ve had is 10 or 11 scholarship players out there out of 13,” Dooley said. “We haven’t had the complete group at a practice yet.”
LeDay is almost back to full contact and expected to play on Nov. 5, but Robinson-White’s timetable is less certain, Dooley said.
The guarantees Dooley can offer to the Pirate Nation concern the squad’s size (considerably taller than last year), their desire to develop the habit of winning (fervent) and their understanding of the season’s ultimate goal.
“Our goal every year is to play in the NCAA Tournament,” Dooley said. “If it’s not our goal, we’re shortchanging our program, we’re shortchanging our fans.
“It’s a little bit of the dog days right now, with the way the practice schedule’s been. I think the guys, for the most part, have responded. I think they’re excited about the nearness of the season. I think we’ve made a lot of progress. I do think the guys will be excited to get out there and play.”
With the addition of three seven-footers to the roster, the ability to match up with top opponents and effectively run a variety of plays is multiplied, Dooley said.
Players like LeDay and Jayden Gardner can play their natural positions instead of being called on to hold down the post. Plays like a trap in the paint to force a turnover have a higher chance of being successful, and the more vertically enhanced team just fills up the court better.
“We’ve got a lot of guys that can play different positions, so as guys go down as the season goes on there are multiple guys that can fill that role,” said Gardner, who still predicts that he will lead the team in rebounding even though, at 6-foot-7, he is far from the tallest player on the squad now. “And I think everyone’s going to be ready when their name is called.”
LeDay, who has been working on sharpening his leadership skills even from the sideline through his rehabilitation, has been impressed with the shooting chops of new teammates like J.J. Miles, a junior transfer from Cape Fear Community College, sophomore transfer Miles James from Palm Beach (CA) State College and Bitumba Baruti, a junior transfer from the Democratic Republic of Congo by way of Chipola (FL) College.
The new floor, the brighter lights and enhanced branding, have all combined with LeDay’s appreciation of his talented new teammates and made him eager to see what this repackaged Pirates brand can do.
“Once they put in that new floor, I was like, OK, it’s time for the new season. It makes me ready to get back on the court,” LeDay said.
As for Charles Coleman, the seven-foot center from Boston who was also received offers from Duke, Pittsburgh, Connecticut and Georgia, the noisy video shoots and cattle-call interview requirements fazed him very little. He had a simple explanation when asked why his teammates were yelling so loudly for the cameras. “They’re excited for the season,” he said.