East Carolina has a huge opportunity to get its struggles in 2021 reversed as the Pirates host No. 5 Houston tonight at 6 p.m. (ESPN+).
The Pirates are 0-5 since the calendar flipped to the new year. They’ve been fast breaking through a COVID minefield that left lengthy gameless spans in the January schedule and put the Pirates in a short-handed predicament when they did play.
The incoming Cougars are 15-1 overall and 10-1 in the American Athletic Conference. The Pirates are at the less-desirable end of the league standings at 7-6 on the season and 1-6 in the AAC.
Still, there are some plus factors for ECU, like the recent resurgence of scorer/rebounder Jayden Gardner and the pending return of multi-talented senior guard Tyrie Jackson, also known as “Pig.”
Coach Joe Dooley was back on the sideline Saturday from a coronavirus exile of his own as Tulsa topped ECU in Greenville, 77-68.
“Pig was able to practice a little bit (Monday),” Dooley said. “That will help with perimeter depth. That does help and helps in practice. That will hopefully get us better prepared. Miles (James) gave us some good minutes against Tulsa, I thought, and, hopefully, he’ll continue to do that.”
Normal footage of the Cougars would be a highlight reel for most teams.
“Their defensive numbers are terrific,” Dooley said. “They’re shooting the ball well in conference play, especially from the three. Their rebounding numbers have been consistent (plus 10 vs. opponents). They’re four (NCAA ranking) in the net. When you look at their KenPom (Ken Pomeroy) offensive and defensive efficiency ratings, they’re very, very low in a good way.
“And they’re balanced. They’ve got a bunch of different guys. … (Reggie) Chaney pops up the other day and scores 10 points in the first half against SMU and hadn’t played a lot of minutes.
“They’re very well balanced and they can hit you a bunch of different ways.”
Getting on the boards will be imperative for the Pirates.
“It’s got to be a team effort,” Dooley said. ” … What they do a really good job of is back tipping the ball. They run in there. They’re not afraid to foul, which is good news. They run in there and tip it and then they run it down. They’re going to be a lot of loose balls also. They’re counted as rebounds but a lot of them are really loose balls and they do a great job of pursuing the ball, whether it’s on the backboard.”
Senior forward Justin Gorham of the Cougars averages 10.2 rebounds per game, which ranks 17th in NCAA Division I.
“(DaJon) Jarreau from the point guard spot is a very good rebounder, just 6-5 and very athletic. They pursue it, they pursue it, they pursue.”
Gardner has been his old self with 49 points and 18 rebounds in the last two games, but the muscular forward can’t get it done by himself.
“We need to get some offensive continuity,” Dooley said. “J.J. (Miles) had been off to a good start. Then he was shut down for a little bit. He’s trying to get his legs back under him. Tristen (Newton), we’re trying to ease him back. You look at Tristen’s numbers from last year to this year. He’s averaging almost eight less points per game in conference play. He was out for 16 days and then we had him back for a day or two so conditioning I think is going to be a big factor.
“After we had him back for a day or two, he was shut down for five days. He needs to get some continuity. We need to get some continuity offensively. I thought we flowed a little bit better against Tulsa but that’s because we’ve played a couple of games now. Other people have needed to step up. I think Tremont (Robinson-White) has. He’s been another weapon. Hopefully, we can get J.J.’s legs back under him, get Tristen going and, hopefully, guys can continue to improve.”
Diminished advantage at home
The absence of fans has transformed the atmosphere in Williams Arena at Minges Coliseum into a reduced homecourt advantage.
“I think one thing we’re seeing is how big an advantage home court is (in normal times),” Dooley said. “You look at the balance and parity throughout college basketball and some teams that very rarely lose at home are pedestrian for their usual standards. … We’ve been playing long enough that we’re used to the environment and we’re sort of settling into it. It’s not going to change so let’s not worry about it. Let’s worry about what we can control. At least we get an opportunity to play, so let’s keep our mouths shut and play.”
When the Pirates played just two games between Dec. 22 and Jan. 24, Dooley expressed concern about how his team would be affected when subsequently playing on a more regular basis.
“This is going to be a work in progress,” said the ECU coach. “It’s made us all rethink and adjust because there’s a fine line between getting your team prepared to play and conditioning. Also, between over conditioning and getting guys hurt. Right now, in practice, you go through a stretch where you have nine or 10 guys. One day you have 13. The next day you have nine. So how do you adjust?
“And these guys, when they start getting in good shape it seems like, maybe we’ve had a pause, which isn’t their fault, so you shut down for five days. Then, as you reacclimate, you’re not really doing any contact. These guys right now are used to getting hit every day. Now, when you don’t get hit for a few days or running into each other, you worry about those type of injuries because they’re not used to it. So just trying to have a fine line between conditioning and also preparing them for the physicality of a game.”
Dooley missed games with Memphis on Jan. 24 and at Central Florida on Jan. 27 when he was in quarantine. That required an adjustment for the coach and his players.
“Most of us as people are creatures of habit,” Dooley said. “It might be a little different when you’re out a day or two with a sprained ankle. I missed the first eight practices after Christmas and then, in a weird deal, I hadn’t been in person in front of our team until last Friday since Jan. 13. So that’s different for the kids. … You can Zoom, which is good, but when you step out of bounds or make a boneheaded play, and I’m watching off Zoom, the voice isn’t the same off of Zoom as when you’re yelling, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ when you’re standing at halfcourt. When you walk over and pat a guy on the back or ask a guy how he’s doing in person is entirely different.
“You can text. You can Zoom, but it was different for those guys. They’re looking for direction and the assistants have to give direction. … As a head coach, you feel guilty. I know I didn’t do anything wrong but you feel like, ‘Hey, I should be there leading these guys.’ You’re sitting at home and there’s not much you can do. It’s a bad feeling as a coach, not being able to help your guys also.”
Execution down the stretch
The Pirates have not performed well in the final stages of recent losses to UCF and Tulsa.
“We’ve talked about it,” Dooley said. “We’ll continue to work on offensive execution — in time, score situations. We do work on it. We’ll continue to work on it. Part of it is learning how to win. I said this to our guys (Monday). I said, ‘Guys, we’re still trying to figure ourselves out. We’ve played 13 games and it’s February. Usually you play 13 games in the out-of-conference schedule. … Then we’ve had some guys in and out. He’s in today. He’s out. Just from a continuity standpoint of trying to get what are you going to run. We went into the Memphis game where you’re taking guys and saying, ‘What plays can we run with those guys because they haven’t played this position before.’ That changes a little bit about what you’re trying to do.
“Now, at the end of the game, you’ve got to get the ball in the best player’s hands. Sometimes, the other team takes the ball out of your best player’s hands. You have to have a plan where another guy is able to step up and make a play or put people in position to make plays for one another.”
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