I have deliberately refrained until now from commenting on the struggles of the East Carolina basketball team during the first month of its 2019-20 season.
Considering the makeup of the squad with only two scholarship returners on the roster, one of which hasn’t played since the team returned from the Bahamas last month, it’s simply too early to make any rash judgments about the state or the direction of coach Joe Dooley’s program.
It’s tough to figure out who you are and who you’re going to be as a group when you’re still in the process of figuring out who everyone on the team is.
Consider that over the first 10 games, Dooley has started nine different lineups. So it’s only fair to chalk up the Pirates 3-7 start to experience. Or in this case, the lack thereof.
But that grace period only lasts so long. At some point, it’s a reasonable expectation for the group to begin jelling, defining roles and showing signs of growth — especially in home games against the Coppin States of the world.
It’s a process that may finally have begun Saturday afternoon at Minges Coliseum with a 79-67 win against Campbell.
The Camels came into the game at 6-2 with wins against Florida Gulf Coast, UNC-Wilmington and Coastal Carolina to their credit.
And yet ECU jumped out to an eight-point halftime lead, its biggest advantage after 20 minutes this season, placed three other players besides star sophomore Jayden Gardner in double figures and scored more fastbreak points (28) in one game than it had in its previous five games combined (27).
It was an encouraging performance Dooley said he saw coming based on the previous few days leading up to the game.
“We had a good week of preparation,” he said. “We’ve probably won five of the last six practices. We were good which means we won the day. We talked about trying to stick with that. If we can win four out of five, or five out of six, you’re going to get better.”
Winning practices is one thing. The next step is stringing together a few wins when the lights are on, the band is playing, the popcorn is popping and there are fans in the stands.
With upcoming home games against Maryland-Eastern Shore, Charlotte and Eastern Kentucky on the schedule before the American Athletic Conference season tips off at Wichita State on New Year’s Day, this is an opportunity for the Pirates to start building that momentum.
“It’s a tale of two seasons,” Dooley said in the aftermath of Saturday’s win. “You’ve seen teams that have started slowly and gotten better all year, and you’ve seen teams that started out great and sort of fizzled off at the end. Hopefully we can sort of keep building and these young guys will figure some things out.”
Two of those young players showed visible signs of growth against Campbell, with 6-foot-6 freshman wing Brandon Suggs posting career highs of 16 points and nine rebounds while 6-5 classmate Tristen Newton added 11 points and eight boards.
It also helped that junior college transfer J.J. Miles returned to the lineup after missing the past two games to injury and picked up where he left off against Kansas City in the Bahamas. With two other older newcomers — Tyree Jackson and Tremont Robinson-White — also contributing on a consistent basis while Gardner is in the process of putting together an All-AAC season, the potential of this team is starting to show.
Now its a matter of fitting all those pieces together and learning to play and communicate as a unit, something Gardner said is already beginning to happen.
“We’ve been getting practice really established and we’ve been doing a really good job at it,” he said. “And we got some good results (Saturday).”
As important as communication, chemistry and all those other intangibles that are instrumental in helping young teams like the Pirates develop an identity, nothing is more important than a little positive reinforcement.
Now that ECU has finally gotten some, it will be interesting to see what it does with it.
Like Dooley said, it’s a tale of two seasons and the second one is only just beginning.