East Carolina basketball coach Joe Dooley discussed his team’s return to play from a COVID pause as the Pirates host Central Florida tonight at 9 p.m. in a matchup that will be shown on ESPNU. ECU hasn’t played since a 71-56 home loss to Southern Methodist on Feb. 8.
Five games have been called off since that matchup with the Mustangs and the Pirates will not be at full strength as they resume a season fragmented by the pandemic.
“We won’t have Bitumba (Baruti),” Dooley said Wednesday. “We won’t have Charles (Coleman) and we won’t have Tyrie (Jackson).”
Baruti has averaged 7.2 points and 4.3 rebounds in 25.6 minutes per game. Jackson has contributed 4.5 points in 17.8 minutes per game. Coleman, a highly-recruited 7-foot sophomore, has averaged just 5.6 minutes but his absence means ECU will be down a big body against the Knights, who topped the Pirates, 71-64, in Orlando, on Jan. 27 despite 23 points and 10 rebounds from Jayden Gardner.
The Pirates, 8-8 overall and 2-8 in the American Athletic Conference, also dealt with a prolonged break between games from Jan. 9 to Jan. 24.
The highlight of the season thus far was an 82-73 win over visiting Houston on Feb. 3. The Cougars (20-3) are currently ranked No, 9,
The Pirates would be in better shape if they had not missed the handful of American Athletic Conference dates that comprised the latest layoff.
“I think we’ll have to sub more,” said Dooley, whose team expects to finish the regular season at home against Cincinnati on Sunday at 1 p.m. (ESPN+). “I don’t think our conditioning is terrible. I don’t think it’s where it would be, obviously, but I think the guys have done a good job where we did do some conditioning and we did some individual stuff … in the minutes we were allowed.
“I do think we’ll have to sub a little bit more often and we might have to use a timeout or two just to slow down and get some guys their breath back.”
When the Pirates came off the earlier pause in an 80-53 loss to Memphis in Greenville on Jan. 24, ECU made just seven of 34 field goal attempts in the first half. That game was played with Dooley absent due to a positive test.
The Pirates made seven of 14 from behind the arc in the first 20 minutes when they knocked off Houston.
“We’ve either been A or Z, which is not what you want to be,” Dooley said of his team’s shooting accuracy. ” … I think the biggest thing you worry about is actually your offensive rhythm. You’re not going to get your rhythm in a couple of days of practice. One of the things you do is don’t turn it over and try to take open shots.”
As the players have gone from isolation to being back together in practice, their excitement level has increased.”
“We had some more guys that came out on Saturday and Sunday,” Dooley said. “We were able to practice Monday and Tuesday for an hour with all those guys. I think they were excited to have guys back out of protocol and play some 5-on-5 to try and get back into a little bit of a routine.
“Monday was the first day we played 5-on-5 since SMU — with our guys. We did play some 5-on-5 against the scout team. We used those guys so we could work on some things defensively.”
Adding to the excitement tonight will be more fans in Williams Arena at Minges Coliseum. Under revised restrictions, 700 students will be admitted.
“The students will give it a little bit better atmosphere,” Dooley said. “I do think for these last couple of games for these guys, it will add some excitement in the facility.”
In the interim
During their down time, some players were able to get some work in.
“When you’re in protocol, it’s all different things,” Dooley said. “One of things we did, we were able, some of the days, to have a manager, a coach and a player on a basket. They were able to shoot, but that’s conditioning. Five straight minutes of shooting. Then maybe throw in a down and back. There were some conditioning components. And then, Jason (Martinez, assistant strength and conditioning coach), even when these guys were in quarantine, he was able to do some Zoom, if they wanted, where they were able to get on with him. Every player had a band where they could do some stretching workouts. They had a basketball in their rooms. That way, they could do some things like that. Push-ups, sit-ups if they Zoom with Jason.
“Once we did get them back we did re-acclimate with adding some running in. The biggest thing is re-acclimating to contact. It’s great to get in better shape but then you don’t want to put them out there against UCF and they haven’t boxed out or hit a screen.
“Most of the conditioning was individual and then we eased back into some stuff against the scout team. Then we got enough guys to practice on Monday. Then we started practicing, being cognizant that we haven’t been practicing, so you have to shorten everything.”
Dooley was asked if the remaining regular-season games would be viewed as opportunities to prepare for the league tournament, which is coming up March 11-14 in Fort Worth.
“I think you just try to win every game that you can,” said the ECU coach. “We’re going to approach it that way. We’re going to be a little smart with the amount of minutes some of these guys play because the last thing you want to do is get guys hurt. That lingers into next season. Just try to win and get some confidence.”
Playing vs. being paused
The Pirates have been through a lot of ups, downs, starts and stops during the 2020-21 season.
“I’ve been proud of the way the guys have acted and reacted,” Dooley said. “We talk about it all the time, irregardless of COVID. Usually, you’re discussing with them about injuries and things like that but it’s amazing how quickly these things can end. It was a shortened season to begin with. Then you miss league games. But all these kids, not just our guys, but these kids that have gone out and played. They chose to play and I think getting an opportunity to play for them is pretty cool and it’s special. They should cherish it. Our guys are happy to get back out there and have an opportunity to compete again and not finish this thing shut down.”
Dooley and staff have had to respond repeatedly to unprecedented circumstances brought on by the pandemic.
“You have to rely on your trainers and your strength coach and your eyes,” Dooley said. “Making sure that you’re not overworking these guys and not underworking them to the point where they can get hurt because they’re not in shape and not overworking them to the point where they’re going to be fatigued on Thursday and then a quick turnaround on Sunday.
“I think the other thing is asking the players, ‘How does your body feel?’ We’ve done extra stretching. We’ve tried to multitask. We’ve had to shorten practice, but we’ve tried to multitask. You have to think a little bit differently. What can we accomplish that takes two drills in one drill? … For example, we play 4-on-4. It’s usually a close-out drill. We don’t usually ball screen. … Now we let them ball screen so we can multitask. Close out, ball screen, just things like that so we can help these guys get their feet under them again.“
Transition to game speed
How quickly the Pirates can adjust to competing again will be important at the outset of tonight’s game. The Knights are 4-2 during the span ECU has been out of action.
“We talked about this the last time we came out of this,” Dooley said. “You can’t simulate the speed of the game. Coaches say it all the time and I worry all the time. You watch other teams come out of pause and you really don’t know what to expect. Could you play great? Yeah. Could you play really poorly? Yeah. That’s what the scary thing as a coach is.”