East Carolina coach Joe Dooley is in the midst of his eighth month of running a college basketball program in the midst of a pandemic.
The 2019-20 season ended for the Pirates in Fort Worth on the cusp of the American Athletic Conference tournament. The Pirates are preparing tentatively to start the 2020-21 season in a tournament in Fort Myers, FL, although there is significant uncertainty about that event, which is scheduled to get underway on Nov. 25. Plans at present call for the team to take a bus to the Sunshine State.
What is certain at this point is that ECU has progressed in an overhaul that began when Dooley returned to guide the Pirates after the 2017-18 season.
Injuries and an inordinate number of first-year players contributed to inconsistency last season that produced an 11-20 overall record. ECU was 5-13 in the AAC. At their worst, the Pirates couldn’t beat Coppin State at home. At its best, ECU stopped a streak of one-sided losses to Southern Methodist with a 71-68 victory in Greenville on Jan. 11.
Pronounced highs and lows can be characteristic of a talented but youthful group that is seeking to develop cohesiveness. The Pirates were without a pair of guards at the outset last season and then sat out a contributing post player.
“I think injuries were part of it,” Dooley said in retrospect this week “I think we had to reinvent our team a couple of different times. Obviously, going into the season, we were given one thing and then that all changed with Tremont (Robinson-White) and (Tyrie Jackson) being out for a little bit.
“I think the Ludgy (Debaut) deal was a little bit different. Ludgy was a little hurt. Then you look at short term. Ludgy could have played last year but we were always concerned about his foot breaking and if it happened in January or February that we’d lose a year. For his long term and short term interests, we thought it was better that we shut it down.
“I think having watched him run and do everything now, compared to where he was last year, it was a good decision for Ludgy, a very good decision for Ludgy.”
Another factor in 2019-20 was the large number of new players and trying to bring that group together as a unit. Dooley recalled a comparable situation when he was an assistant at Kansas, a stint that included an NCAA Tournament title in 2008.
“Well, 11 guys,” Dooley said. “Eleven new guys. I think the most I’d ever been around was eight. That was an overwhelming number. Of that eight that we had, I think three or four of them ended up playing in the NBA at Kansas. That was a little bit different,
“It was a large number to learn a lot of things. We had some guys who got some experience that they wouldn’t have gotten. … A couple of the guys we had planned on redshirting, we didn’t. They actually stepped up and had really good years and I think they’ll grow from it.”
Development during COVID
Offseason development of players went from practically nothing to a restricted environment before more or less returning to normal.
“We did it like the NBA for probably about a month and a half where we had a coach and a player and a manager on a basket. It was all skill development so we had four guys in there and four people on different baskets doing their workouts. They were spread out, obviously, to try to mitigate some guys being too close to each other.
“Probably about a month ago, we were given the OK to start doing some more stuff so we’ve been out there doing five on five and three on three and four on four. Now we’re back to full-throttle practice. Earlier, we were trying to figure out if a guy was shut down, how we could minimize having another guy shut down. It’s different. We’re an indoor sport, obviously with basketball and close contact. It’s going to be an interesting dynamic.”
Effective Nov. 1, Dooley will have his salary reduced by 20 percent as the athletic department makes financial adjustments relating to loss of revenue from the pandemic.
“I think right now they’ve got it through June 30, but it can be extended,” Dooley said.
Dooley reportedly has income of around $900,000 annually. About half of that is his base salary from the university.
Dooley and staff have performed impressively in recruiting, both in terms of quantity and quality, but the geography of recruiting has changed significantly. There are no campus visits for potential players at present.
“It’s an NCAA dead period,” Dooley said. “We’re not allowed off campus. We’re not allowed on campus. Student-athletes can take tours of campus but they have to go through the regular admissions process, through the admissions tour office. We can not be part of it. We can’t see them. They obviously don’t have access to the facilities, nor would they be open. It’s a whole different dynamic in recruiting, too. It’s entirely different. I don’t know when that’s going to change. … That’s probably a good ways away, also.”
How are the Pirates working around those limitations?
“We were fortunate in one regard that since we didn’t have a very big class in ’20 that we saw a lot of the 2021 players live,” Dooley said. “We got our eyes on a lot of guys.
“The second part of it, there’s been a lot of streaming. A lot of the events in the state of Georgia and the state of South Carolina, there are a number of events that we’ve been able to get on stream.
“It’s not ideal because you can’t necessarily tell height. You can’t see body language. It’s been better for us. Fortunately, we don’t have a large number of guys signing. A couple of years ago, we were trying to get 10 or 11. This is a 3- or 4-person class. We feel a lot better in that regard also.”
The Pirates made 42.1 percent of their field goal attempts last season, but just 28.1 percent beyond the arc.
“One thing is I think we’ll be able to play faster because we have familiarity,” Dooley said. “Guys have a better understanding of how we want to do it. Better chemistry. We have better depth. Now we just have to put it all together as we get ready to play a season.”
Jayden Gardner, a 6-feet, 7-inch forward, topped the AAC as a sophomore in scoring with 19.7 points per game. He averaged 9.2 rebounds, third best in the league. Gardner is expected to lead the team again.
“We’ve got to shoot the ball better,” Dooley said. “That was evident. We’ve spent a lot of time on shooting. We’ve spent a ton of time on offense. … We’ve got to make sure that we’re able to spread the floor and give (Gardner) some driving lanes. Get him in isolations but also be able to have those other guys.
“Tristen (Newton) needs to have some more offensive freedom. We do need J.J. (Miles) to step up like I expect him to and from these other guys I think we’ll have maturity and we’ll get better.”
Newton (11.0 points) and Brandon Suggs (8.3) became major contributors as freshmen last season. Newton was ECU’s leader in assists (114) and steals (37). Miles, a senior forward who transferred from junior college, averaged 7.5 points in his initial campaign with the Pirates in 2019-20.
ECU freshman guard Noah Farrakhan had offers that included Florida, Maryland and Ohio State.
“Noah is very talented,” Dooley said. “He’s an elite-level athlete. He needs to get a little bit stronger. He actually shoots the ball better than I thought. He has a very good mid-range game. Obviously, like all freshmen, he’s learning some things that he needs to. Obviously, valuing the ball and some defensive things that he really hasn’t seen before. Those are all things that freshmen have to learn.”
Sophomore post player Charles Coleman also culled an impressive list of programs to become a Pirate.
“I think Charles came in in really good shape,” Dooley said. “He’s grown. He’s stronger. He knows what to expect. It’s a learning process for big guys. He’s gotten better. He still has a way to go. I do think he’s made some progress. He’s a guy we’re going to continue to grow with and he’ll continue to get better.”
Homecoming of sorts
The Pirates are scheduled to open the season in a three-day tournament in Fort Myers, FL, starting Nov. 25.
“That’s where we are right now,” Dooley said.
The players preferred to take a bus to the event rather than fly commercial.
“It’s a long trip,” said Dooley, who coached at Florida Gulf Coast in that area before coming back to ECU, where he was 57-52 from 1995-96 to 1998-99..
“They’ve had to combine two events as I understand it right now,” Dooley said. “We’ve got a tentative idea of the teams, but is it definitive? No. There’s a number of different factors. Teams that were in it weren’t allowed to travel to Florida or if they traveled to Florida, would have to quarantine for 14 days upon going back. There’s a lot of mitigating factors.”
The Pirates would play Thanksgiving day and wrap up the event with a game on Friday, Nov. 27.
“We’ll come up with something,” Dooley said in regard to celebrating the holiday on the road. “I’ve been with programs a couple of times that were in the Great Alaska Shootout that were up in Alaska for Thanksgiving. I’ve been at Maui for Thanksgiving. Being in Fort Myers won’t be terrible. …
But Dooley won’t really be able to go home.
“We sold our house probably six to eight months after we left,” he said.