Just after a 68-58 home win over Tulane on Dec. 22, Jayden Gardner was asked what he wanted for Christmas. The junior forward, who leads East Carolina in scoring (17.0) and rebounding (7.3), said his desire was for the Pirates to get a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Due to COVID issues, ECU didn’t play again until last Saturday’s 60-56 loss to the same Green Wave team in New Orleans.
No one was talking about the Big Dance after the setback in the Big Easy.
The Pirates (7-2, 1-2 AAC) look to right the ship on Saturday when they host South Florida at 1 p.m. (ESPN+).
ECU coach Joe Dooley said after the second Tulane game that his team did things they hadn’t done all season and he wasn’t talking about good things. The focus has shifted ahead this week.
“Obviously, a couple of days preparing for South Florida,” Dooley said Thursday. “We had a couple of days of practice to iron some things out that we didn’t do particularly well against Tulane. … We’ll go again (Friday) afternoon and finish up our preparation for South Florida, who played last night against Tulsa (61-51 win for the Golden Hurricane in Tampa). We’ll hopefully get a little bit of rhythm and get ready to play again.”
It will be the Pirates’ second game in almost three weeks. Long breaks are part of the pandemic.
“Throughout the country, we’re all trying to get in a rhythm, which is not going to be easy,” Dooley said. “Everything isn’t like it’s been so it’s not unusual to play a game, then have a week off. It’s not ideal, but it is what it is. We’ve tried to get a little bit better, tried to control what we can control and I think our guys will be excited to play on Saturday.”
ECU was without Tristen Newton, who is averaging 8.4 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists in the game at Tulane. Newton apparently tested positive for COVID-19 after the Christmas break.
Dooley was asked about pending player absences in a Zoom conference on Thursday.
“We could have a couple,” Dooley said. “That’s an ongoing deal. There’s a couple of guys that are a little dinged up so we’ll see how that goes. I think it’s going to be like that all season. You’re going to have to adjust. It’s day-to-day. We’re trying to figure it out. It’s not necessarily just COVID. Things happen this time of year. There’s always ankle sprains, back problems. So now it’s trying to figure out who you’re going to have and getting the guys you have prepared to play.”
Newton’s status was not defined.
“We’ll just see what the medical people tell us,” Dooley said. “It’s day-by-day and we’ll try to follow the medical procedures.”
South Florida vs. Tulsa
Several USF players struggled against Tulsa on Wednesday night. Leading Bulls scorer David Collins (11.9) didn’t have a point, going 0-for-10 from the floor. Alexis Yetna (10.6 average) was limited to four points and Justin Brown (8.5) also was scoreless.
“It was a very low possession game,” Dooley said. “It’s unusual the amount of points that (Alexis) Yetna didn’t have and (Justin) Brown didn’t have a big game. (Xavier) Castenada played real well. He shot as many shots as anybody. You do know what Yetna is capable of. You know what (David) Collins is capable of. Brown has played well against us historically. And then you have a kid, (Caleb) Murphy, … who is a terrific talent. He does things from an athletic standpoint you can’t teach. (He’s) explosive, great off the bounce and I think (Michael) Durr has been a very steady influence for them the whole season.”
Murphy had 12 points and four assists for the Bulls on Wednesday. Durr finished with four points and 11 rebounds.
The possibility of a positive test makes for uncertainty.
“Here’s the way we’re going to view the whole year in my opinion,” Dooley said. “It’s going to be a year of adjustments and adapting. You could have a young man put on this COVID deal. He could have a headache tonight and you’re not going to have him today for practice until you get a negative test back. What you do is you take the next guy on the list and you plug him in to that spot. Try to get the guys that you have prepared, making sure that they’re having some fun with it, making sure they’re safe. You’re just going to have to adjust on the fly. I think all coaches have had to think about things this year that we’ve probably never had to think about before. Hopefully, it will make us all better coaches.”
Gardner didn’t have but five points his last time out. He didn’t have a field goal until hitting a 3-pointer in the final seconds.
“There’s a number of factors,” Dooley said. “He just didn’t have one of his games. We didn’t get him the ball some. They did a good job of taking him out. He probably had four or six other points. I mean there was actually two turnovers that as … it wasn’t the guards. In all honesty, it was the big guys. One or two involved him where he just didn’t move to go get a ball or had a layup on a play from Noah (Farrakhan) where he just didn’t catch what he usually catches. He’s not going to be perfect. We’ve been lucky that those games have been few and far between.
“It was a bad time for us. He wasn’t in rhythm. We weren’t in rhythm. Some of that is obviously attributed to Tulane. Some of it is attributed to our own ineptness.
ECU was beset by 21 turnovers at Tulane.
“I saw some things we hadn’t seen all year,” Dooley said. “I do think some of it was our offensive rhythm. When you really look at it, the guys that touched the ball the most, didn’t turn it over. That being our point guards. They played 38 minutes and combined for two turnovers with Noah and Tremont (Robinson-White). The dominant amount of turnovers came up front from our frontline guys.
“There was some pass and catch things. Just some simple things. We threw the ball behind people. If they were open, we threw it at their knee. I’d say concentration. That’s the biggest thing. We can all pass and catch. When you throw a bad pass, it’s a reflection that you’re not ready to play. We were a little sloppy. By the time we got in some type of rhythm, it was almost too late.
“We were down one (with 1:40 left) and (Sion) James hits a big three (with 1:18 to go for a 54-50 Tulane lead). That was a big play.”
Pace of the game projects as a factor against the Bulls.
“When you look at their adjusted pace, it’s a low-possession game,” Dooley said. “We would like to play fast. Murphy and Collins are terrific in transition. Those guys are both one-man fast breaks. Collins draws a lot of fouls. Murphy is about as explosive as they get. My guess is after a rough day (Wednesday), Yetna and Brown and those guys will be ready and amped up to pounce on Saturday afternoon.”
The ECU coach was asked about key factors in Saturday’s matchup.
“One thing is possessions are going to begin when the ball is shot, especially on our defensive end, because they’re a very good offensive rebounding team,” Dooley said. “They rebound a very high percentage of their misses. We need to clean up the backboard.
“We do need to make sure we take care of the ball and get a shot every time down the court.
“And I would like to see us play a little bit faster. Now against Tulane, it’s different because of the match-up zone and against South Florida because of the amount of possessions but I would like to see us play a little bit faster offensively.”
The real Gardner
Gardner’s down day at Tulane was likely an aberration.
“He’s just got a knack,” Dooley said. “I think there’s certain things you can coach and certain things that you can’t. He’s got a feel for how to score. To tell you the truth, he’s got a very awkward game. When you watch, it’s not like he’s a freak athlete. He just has a knack of catching you off guard.
“He’s a little awkward, shooting off the wrong foot every once in a while. Every once in a while, he’ll catch and shoot it before you even get a chance to go get it. He does have a knack for drawing fouls, which we need him to get to the free throw line a little bit more.”
The Pirate roster for 2121-22 will be something of a numbers game. Everyone is potentially eligible to return in addition to an incoming recruiting class.
“We’ve had some general conversations,” Dooley said. “I think the biggest thing, I’ve had initial discussions with some of these guys. I’m trying not to overwhelm these guys with too much right now, putting more on their plate and those type of deals I think would confuse them even further, so we’ve had some preliminary ones.
“We probably won’t start trying to get a definitive answer until probably February, just from a numbers count.
“The flip side of that deal is that I don’t think any of us as coaches want to have 16 or 17 guys for a good program, especially for the one-time transfer coming in. You bring in some freshmen and they don’t play and they can transfer — I think that doesn’t set a good tone. I do think we’ll pare it down and probably hope to have 13 or 14 guys and our walk-ons and keep it in that ballpark.”