On the day before East Carolina begins play in the American Athletic Conference Tournament in Fort Worth, junior Jayden Gardner became the first Pirate to make first team all-league as selected by the AAC coaches.
ECU had not had a first-team pick since Maurice Kemp in 2013. That was when the Pirates were in Conference USA. Gardner was on the AAC second team as a sophomore.
Gardner is averaging 18.3 points per game, which leads the AAC.
“It’s an accomplishment for me, my teammates and my coaches,” Gardner said. “I couldn’t have done it without them. Just credit them through this weird situation (pandemic) that everyone has been going through. We just stuck together and we’ll try to stick together through this whole tournament. … Going on a streak. I’ve watched a lot of basketball already in conference tournaments. People went on streaks, people in our state. UNCG, App State are going to the (NCAA) tournament. … It’s very exciting to see teams like that in our state.”
Last season, the Pirates were preparing for their opening game in the league tournament when the event was called off.
“It’s very exciting,” Gardner said in anticipation of tonight’s matchup with Central Florida (ESPNU, 7 p.m.). “Last year was very disappointing, not being able to showcase what we could do in Fort Worth. But this time around, we get the opportunity. It’s just a blessing to see how far we’ve come in only a year. All these vaccinations coming out and COVID testing. It’s nice to see.”
ECU coach Joe Dooley echoed Gardner’s thoughts a year after last season’s unfulfilled trip to the AAC hoops gathering.
“I think Jayden said it,” Dooley said. “We’re all happy to get an opportunity. It just shows the fragility of everything. You’re out there for shoot-around and then all of a sudden the tournament is canceled. You have to wait an entire year to do this. I think it’s a tribute to — like Jayden said — that we’re making progress and getting back to normalcy and it’s good for everybody.”
Gardner is second in the AAC in rebounding with 8.3 per game.
“He means a lot to this program, obviously,” Dooley said. “He’s been a cornerstone since we got here. … He wanted to be a Pirate and it’s exciting for him. It’s exciting for our program. Now we have to put some other pieces around him.”
… It’s great to see him get the recognition. I do think it drives him. I think he wants to be a really good player. I think he’s still getting better. I think the good thing is he’ll be even better next year. I just felt like he was getting into a rhythm, especially in conference play. Not just him, but I think a lot of these guys had been a little out of their rhythm and out of sync because they can’t get into a rhythm. I do think since we’ve started conference play for the most part, he’s really been good in his role and I think some of these other guys are starting to figure it out.”
Possible returning player
“Maybe (Bitumba) Baruti,” Dooley said. “We’ll see how that goes the next couple of days. Maybe Bitumba will be able to give us a few minutes. Charles (Coleman) is out. Tyrie (Jackson) is out. They’re not even on the trip. Bitumba is here.”
From a 7-1 start to a pair of multi-week quarantines, ECU (8-10, 2-10 AAC) has been through ups and downs as well as stops and starts,
“I don’t know that we are what we are because we’ve been all over the place,” Dooley said. “The thing that impressed me is that we’re at practice yesterday and these guys are flying around. I’ve been impressed by their spirit, especially since things haven’t gone our way. I think they know we’re a good team. I don’t think we’ve always shown it. Things have inhibited us, including ourselves at times. I think we can play better than we have. I think playing more games will help us.”
Dooley did a Zoom conference from the team’s hotel in Texas on Wednesday.
“We’ve got several teams staying here,” Dooley said. “I know Temple is staying here and a couple of others. We’re all testing. Our guys just had to go test. … They’re testing right here in the hotel. My guess is that some teams don’t have many people to test anymore, so it makes it a little bit quicker.”
Keys vs. UCF
UCF made eight of 25 from beyond the arc in its last matchup with the Pirates.
“The 3-point line, obviously for both teams,” Dooley said of potentially-decisive factors tonight. “We’ve got to get them off the line. I thought that was where they beat us the last time. … They are the leading 3-point field goal percentage team (in the AAC, 36.1 percent). We have to guard that, which we did a decent job. We gave up their average. They didn’t get above it. I thought what hurt us the last time was in the post. (Avery) Diggs and (Jamille) Reynolds combined for 17 points, all around the basket. We shot higher from the 3-point line (8-22, 36.4 percent) than we did from two (19-55, 34.5 percent). We’ve got to keep them from getting easy baskets and we’ve got to finish our paint touches.”
The NCAA said teams with five healthy players could compete in the NCAA Tournament.
Dooley is hopeful his team doesn’t develop a cluster that would preclude its potential path to the Big Dance.
“We’re just crossing our fingers that we can just do what we’re doing,” Dooley said. “If something happens, we’ll go with what the league says.”
Dooley and the Pirates received several noteworthy recruiting commitments in February and March while the team was on pause. [View thumbnail sketches of ECU’s projected incoming basketball recruits.]
“You spend a lot more time on recruiting when you don’t know who you’re playing next,” Dooley said. “We targeted some guys. I think the other thing is some of the guys, especially high school guys are starting to realize a little bit of urgency because with the amount of names — you watch starting about Wednesday or Thursday this week — and … next week, names will be in the portal. From Monday to Thursday, it increased about 150-200 names. You still have half the leagues haven’t played their conference tournaments. A lot of these kids are starting to figure out that are going to be more transfers than there are scholarships so some people are getting a little more urgent about recruiting.”
Game day routine
ECU will have a more or less routine game day in advance of tonight’s tipoff.
“We’ll shoot tomorrow morning like we usually do,” Dooley said. “We can’t shoot in Dickies Arena. They’re not allowing us but we’ve got a place where we’re going to go shoot. We’re practicing the same place (Wednesday). We’ll be in our normal game routine. We’ll get up, just shoot around. We’ll do our film. We’ll do our walk-through, pregame. Then, we’ll line up and play UCF.
The third meeting this season with UCF will incorporate adjustments to earlier matchups. The Knights took a 71-64 win in Orlando on Jan. 27.
“I thought the pace late in the game (March 4) against them, they threw up a little, soft press and we didn’t attack it like we need to in a late-game situation,” Dooley said. “But I thought for the most part we were pretty good man-to-man. We didn’t play well against their zone. The zone we had a little problem with, like we did against Cincinnati. That’s negated by making some shots.
“I thought the big thing was us attacking the zone. The other thing I talked about was those guys punishing us inside. Diggs and Reynolds really hurt us. We’ve got to adjust those deals.”
Newton vs. Knights
Gardner and Tristen Newton each scored 18 points a week ago against UCF.
“I think Tristen the last couple of games has shown what he is,” Dooley said. “Coming out of Christmas, he was in protocol. He was in a weird deal because he was in protocol and then he came back and tweaked his knee a little bit. He was hurt and put on some weight and then we got shut down for a while. So Tristen, at one point, was shut down about 22 or 23 days out of 24.
“So that obviously didn’t help his rhythm. The last couple of weeks he’s getting back in shape. He’s been able to practice. He’s been able to lose some of the weight. He’s been much more aggressive the last two games and really played like what we thought he was capable of. Hopefully, he’ll take that into the tournament and on into next season.
“I think he’s rounding back into what we were probably expecting, through no fault of his own. That was a lot of days he was sitting out.”
The Pirates trailed 14-3 early against the Knights last week and UCF had a crucial 5-0 run with less than three minutes to play. Periods of offensive inefficiency could be a function of reduced practice time.
“The film and everything is great,” Dooley said. “It’s the reps that we’re missing. You can watch film from now until. … It’s really the reps that you don’t get. Simple things. The other day against Cincinnati, the second half, how many passes did we have deflected? Those are simple timing deals. For example, we usually do what we call box gapping. We probably do that three or four days a week. Well, since we’ve been back, we haven’t done box gapping but once. Those are simple, elementary, fundamental things that you get frustrated as a coach but I’m also saying we haven’t been able to do that. You have an hour. Six minutes of box gapping means you don’t do six minutes of transition defense. Those are things that you’re picking and choosing. Those are things you like to do every day and you can’t. It’s affected their timing. I did think we were a little more hesitant against the zone but that’s not the kids’ fault.
“We’ve got to do a better job coaching them and try to figure out within that time what we can get to help them.
“The other part, I thought conditioning the other day against Cincinnati was more evident against Cincinnati than it was against UCF. Conditioning also hurts your shooting. I thought we were short on a bunch of shots. The pace of the game was a lot quicker against Cincinnati than it was against UCF and I thought that affected us.”
The ECU-UCF winner moves on to meet Memphis (15-7, 11-4) on Friday at 10 p.m.