Just in case you haven’t noticed, there’s an uncanny similarity between East Carolina’s football and basketball programs right now.
Both are in the early stages of a building process. Both are led by coaches with track records of success. Both are making positive strides, albeit not always in the win column. And most importantly, both have dynamic young stars with multiple years of eligibility remaining to serve as a foundation around which to build.
Those last two points were on full display on New Year’s Day in Wichita, KS.
Just as the football team played nationally ranked American Athletic Conference opponents Cincinnati and Southern Methodist right down to the wire despite being double-digit underdogs last fall, coach Joe Dooley’s hoop squad made No. 24 Wichita State work for everything it got before finally falling 75-69.
It was an encouraging performance for many reasons. Among them was the way the Pirates regained their composure after giving up the game’s first nine points.
Dooley said that his team “got frazzled” in those first few minutes. But instead of falling victim to the energy of the hostile crowd and allowing the momentum to snowball into an insurmountable deficit, ECU battled back and actually went ahead midway through the second half.
“You’re playing a really good team on the road and I thought we did a lot of good things,” Dooley said in his postgame comments. “We’ve got a lot of new guys, so to come in this environment and get down like we did and fight back, I thought they responded in a really good way. I’m proud of the way they responded.”
ECU’s strong effort was an extension of the work it put in over the final two weeks of the nonconference schedule.
Say what you want about the quality of the opposition. As mentioned in this column back on Dec. 16, that four-game stretch against Campbell, Maryland-Eastern Shore, Charlotte and Eastern Kentucky was an opportunity for the young Pirates to improve, develop some chemistry, and remember how good it feels to win.
Now that the Pirates have learned how it feels to win and that they can compete with the best the AAC has to offer, the next step is to start doing more than just competing against conference teams. And the next three games against South Florida, SMU and Tulsa, all at home, would be the perfect time for that to happen.
But if it takes longer than that, so be it.
Just sit back and enjoy the generational talent that is Jayden Gardner while Dooley works to find the right combination of pieces to put around him.
The 6-foot-6 sophomore currently leads the AAC in scoring and — as his performance against Wichita on Wednesday showed — he’s still adding elements to his game and getting better. Having already proven his ability to score on the low post and get to the free throw line, Gardner showed off a face-up midrange game that was so effective while scoring 29 points (on 12 of 20 shooting) that Shockers coach Gregg Marshall proclaimed “his 15-footer is almost automatic.”
Gardner, in many respects, is to ECU basketball what record-setting quarterback Holton Ahlers is to the Pirates’ football team.
The big difference is that while football coach Mike Houston is still in the process of surrounding his trigger man with the defense, offensive line and other elements needed to turn the promise his program showed in his first season into results during Ahlers’ final two, the help Gardner needs may already be on the roster.
Dooley brought 11 new scholarship players into the program this season and he’s still in the process of trying to find just the right combination. The lineup he started against Wichita was the 10th different combination he’s used thus far.
Eventually he figures to hit on the one that works best. Or at the very least, identify areas that still need to be addressed through further recruiting.
While it may be too soon to start feeling optimistic about the future of ECU basketball, at least now there’s finally reason to be hopeful.
Just like football.