With wins in five of the last six games, including a 62-59 American Athletic Conference victory over visiting South Florida on Tuesday night, East Carolina (7-8, 1-1 AAC) will take some momentum into its league matchup with Southern Methodist (12-2, 2-0) in Williams Arena at Minges Coliseum on Saturday at 2 p.m. (ESPNU).
USF had a pair of double-figure scorers on the floor from a team that went 24-14 last season. That impressive record included the championship of the College Basketball Invitational. The Bulls were missing Alexis Yetna, a forward who averaged 12.3 points and 9.6 rebounds last year as a freshman, due to a knee injury.
“I thought we got off to a pretty good start,” said Pirates coach Joe Dooley on the most recent triumph. “Our defense was a little better for the most part. To start the game, we were efficient. We moved the ball. Jayden, obviously, got us off to a good start.”
Sophomore Jayden Gardner had 15 of his game-high 23 points in the first 20 minutes.
“Then, we got a little stagnant the second half after we got the lead,” Dooley said. “We got a little careless with the ball. For a little bit, they had us on our heels.
“We had a 13-point lead. Next thing you know, we’re down. I thought the guys responded. Obviously, it wasn’t an ideal situation, but we didn’t pout. We sort of bowed up and were able to get the lead back.”
ECU got off to a 2-7 start this season with 11 new players in the program. The group has grown more competitive since exam break.
“We’ve had some time to practice together,” Dooley said. “It’s really helped us. We’ve been going just about every day twice a day. I think we’re getting some chemistry. Obviously, I think the other thing that has happened, our defense has gotten a little bit better, which has definitely helped because we were on our heels defensively for a while.
“I think the guys are understanding what we need, how to guard certain situations. We’re starting to mature. With so many new guys, they’re starting to figure out some roles.”
Tim Jankovich is in his fourth season as coach at SMU. He followed Larry Brown as coach of the Mustangs and has maintained a high level of performance.
“Obviously, Coach Brown — you look in the NBA, he had multiple NBA players,” Dooley said. “You take a Hall of Fame coach and give him great players. With the guys that they have, obviously they have very good offensive balance.
“They can score the ball a bunch of different ways.
“One thing, like everything else, you can’t turn it over. We’ve had a little bit of a bugaboo and we need to get that all sorted out. You can’t turn it over because they’re unbelievable in transition.
“We have some matchup problems and I’m sure they probably feel the same.”
With the influx of new players, the Pirates gained some needed size. Seven-footers Edra Luster and Charles Coleman combined for seven rebounds in 15 minutes against the Bulls.
Luster is a junior and Coleman is a freshman. Coleman was recruited by Duke and Memphis among others.
Playing time for the big men contributes to their significant upside.
“I think a lot of it depends on matchups and foul trouble,” Dooley said. “Those guys will play this Saturday. We’ll sort it out from there. With Ludgy (Debaut, 7-0) being out for the year, we’ll try to figure it out from there after those two guys play.”
Minges as a facility
There were 3,389 on hand for the USF game. Student attendance was down. Classes for the new semester start Monday.
“I think the work that they’ve done with the graphics and the aesthetics of Minges and the floor being redone has really livened the place up,” Dooley said. “The crowd has been enthusiastic. The stuff that they’re doing on the concourses, just the graphics, has made everything a lot more aesthetically pleasing.”
” … I thought the crowd was great the other night. Hopefully, when the students get back — and a lot of them will be back this weekend, we’ll get some more students out for SMU and Tulsa.”
The Pirates meet the Golden Hurricane on Wednesday at 7 p.m.
The Pirates have signed another seven-footer, Derrick Quansah, who is at Hargrave Military Academy.
“We always constantly recruit,” Dooley said. “You never can tell what’s going to happen with guys transferring. We always keep our pulse on it. Obviously, we’ve done a lot of underclass recruitment. Technically, we’ve got four seniors next year or three if we redshirt Edra. You’ve got to get on the 2021 class also.”
Defense and rebounding are always important factors. Those elements will be especially important against SMU.
“We’ve got to defend,” Dooley said. “They’re unbelievably efficient offensively, so we’ve got to make sure that we guard and don’t give up easy points because they can score in bunches and they can score a bunch of different ways. Obviously, rebound the basketball. They’re terrific on the backboard.”
Exclusive focus on basketball
With classes out, the Pirates have used the extra time for team development.
“I think it helped us,” Dooley said. “We’ve been able to get better during the Christmas break because we’ve focused on it. We’ve already practiced once today (Thursday). We’ll watch film and we’ll practice this afternoon. We’ll watch film tonight. You can control everything from how many times you’re practicing and getting work in and extra shots up and extra film.
“Also, we’ve had guys around the facility, eating meals. We bring in meals for them. That way we can spend some quality time with them.”
The ECU locker room renovation is nearing completion.
“Almost,” Dooley said. “We’re in it. They’re still fixing some things up.”