An unprecedented season of East Carolina basketball concluded on March 11 with a 72-62 loss to Central Florida in the American Athletic Conference Tournament in Fort Worth.
The Pirates, who finished 8-10 after a 7-1 start, were 0-for-5 on 3-pointers and trailed, 36-27, at halftime. ECU went 3-for-16 from beyond the arc for the game, 18.8 percent.
“Obviously, we didn’t shoot the ball very well,” said Pirates coach Joe Dooley. “We did some things uncharacteristic on defense. We gave up some ball-screen baskets that we’ve worked on since October. They got a bunch of cheapies that way.
“We didn’t turn it over a ton, but we turned it over in live-ball situations and they got easy baskets. I think a lot of reasons they shot 47 percent (25-53) for the game was because we gave up too many easy baskets and we didn’t get enough easy baskets to offset that.”
“(Jamille) Reynolds and (Avery) Diggs had 22 points. Their combined average is about 10. The next game they played (70-62 loss to Memphis), they don’t score.”
Reynolds and Diggs played a combined total of five minutes against the Tigers and managed just two points between them.
“Early in the (UCF) game, they hurt us with the 3-point shot,” Dooley said. “The second half, they just threw the ball inside and punished us inside. They did a good job of throwing the ball in from where we couldn’t trap. … They punished us inside, which I thought was a big problem.”
Thoughts on season
ECU was scheduled to start the season in the Gulf Coast Classic, but that trip didn’t materialize. There were stretches in which three straight AAC games were postponed in January and a span in February that had five consecutive games called off.
“Like society, the season was disjointed,” Dooley said. “Coming out of Christmas, we had some COVID problems. January, we hit a little bit of a lull. I think the real big thing is just a lack of practice. That was what was really weird.
“From February 9 through the end of the season, I think we had five practices where we had most of our guys. A couple of those practices, we only had guys for a limited time, like an hour. Like everyone else, we were trying to adjust on the fly. Trying to make sure the kids stay safe. It was just a different year for everybody.”
Dooley doesn’t know how the third year on his five-year contract will be evaluated.
“I don’t know,” Dooley said. “That’s an administration decision. How they view it is essentially their job, their evaluation. I’m not sure how they do that.”
To be sure, the difficulties generated by the pandemic as well as injuries will be considered.
“I would think so but I’m not an administrator,” Dooley said. “It’s tough for coaches to evaluate your team, too, because you probably played 13 less games than you would have played. When you look at the calendar, you see where different guys were out. We went through a stretch for two weeks where we were practicing with five scholarship guys. You’re not going to get better that way, which is unfortunate.
“We had a little deal coming out of Christmas and had guys in contact tracing, including myself, and then we had a little deal in January where we had some guys out, including myself. It seemed almost like three different seasons.
“The team we had earlier was 7-1. Then we had part of our team. Then you start coming back together. We kept trying to put it back together, which is usually not the way it happens. … I missed about 16 or 17 days with contact tracing and I tested positive.”
Bitumba Baruti averaged 6.8 points and 24.8 minutes for the season but had not played since Feb. 8 when he returned for the AAC Tournament. He didn’t score in 11 minutes against the Knights.
“In his defense, his conditioning, we were happy to get him back out there but he was far from — he had been out for two and a half-weeks, longer than that,” Dooley said. “He was on a minutes restriction. He couldn’t play more than he played. I don’t know that he could have played more anyway.”
Sophomore post player Charles Coleman chose ECU over offers that included Duke and Memphis. Freshman point guard Noah Farrakhan had rides to Florida, Maryland, Ohio State and Virginia Tech, among others. Neither of the highly-sought recruits played a prominent role for the Pirates in 2020-21.
“Charles was hurt,” Dooley said. “Charles was out. I think this hurt his development, not being able to do a lot of things. I still think he can be a good player. I think he’s got to figure some things out. This will be a big spring and summer for him.
“Noah has got to get turned up, like he’s capable. His is not an ability deal. His ability is excellent, but there are a lot of other things besides ability that factor into these equations. He’s smart. I do think that he can figure it out. Hopefully, he’ll figure it out in the spring. … Part of it is (effort), also did you beat out Tremont (Robinson-White) or Tristen (Newton)?
“That’s part of it. I think Tremont had a good year, a solid year. I thought Tristen played better down the stretch once he got going a little bit. I thought the last three or four games, he played like I thought he was capable of. So I think those things also factored in.”
Robinson-White averaged 10 points in league play after scoring at an 8.1 clip in nonconference games. He didn’t score in the last game of the regular season, an 82-69 home loss to Cincinnati on March 7. He was 3-for-10 in the AAC Tournament game with UCF.
“His shooting did (fall off),” Dooley said. “He had a rough stretch at the end of the year. He did hurt his wrist a little bit. Was that a little bit of a factor? Yes. I thought he played well. I just didn’t think he shot the ball well.”
ECU has three signees, three commitments and a transfer set to join the program for next season but Dooley wouldn’t say recruiting is done for next year.
“I don’t think you’re ever done,” Dooley said. “With the one-time transfer and all this other stuff, I think we’ll actively keep nosing around and see what’s out there and see what’s going on.”
The volume of recruits might mean that there will be some players leaving the program from the 2020-21 roster.
“We’re going to sit down and start meeting with our guys early next week just to discuss where we stand and where they stand,” Dooley said.
The Pirates won’t attempt a return to the Gulf Coast Classic in 2021-22.
“We’re contracted for an event in Myrtle Beach next year,” Dooley said. “That’s in the middle of November. It’s a 3-game deal at Myrtle Beach. It’s an ESPN event.”
AAC in NCAA
Wichita State was knocked out of the NCAA Tournament with a 53-52 loss to Drake on Thursday night. Houston, a No. 2 seed, is left to carry the American Athletic Conference banner. The Cougars (24-3) face Cleveland State (19-7) tonight (TRU TV, 7:15 p.m.).
“Houston, I do think, can make a deep run,” Dooley said. “They can score a bunch of different ways. Obviously, they rebound the ball on a high level. They’re an elite defensive team so I do think sometimes in tournament play scores do go down a little bit. They’re well-acclimated to play in games like that.”
Gonzaga (26-0) is the overall No. 1 seed for the event being played entirely in Indiana this season.
“I think they prepared themselves in out of conference play, too,” Dooley said. “You look at who they played out of conference. They beat Kansas pretty handily (102-90) and beat some other people pretty handily.”
The Bulldogs defeated Virginia, the last NCAA champ in 2019, by a 98-75 margin on Dec. 26. Dooley said the West Coast Conference is under-appreciated.
“I do think their league is also getting better as you look right now,” Dooley said. “Pepperdine was good. St. Mary’s is historically very good. BYU has gotten very good. That league is on an uptick and they’re getting tested more than they have previously.
“I just think they’re so elite offensively. You’ve got three guys — (Jalen) Suggs, (Drew) Timme, and (Corey) Kispert. All those guys can just score at will. They score like we breathe. They have three guys on the first, second or third team All-America list. It shows the balance that they have.”
Dooley was asked about a possible surprise team in the Big Dance.
“I haven’t seen enough to really make judgement,” said the Pirates coach. “I think there are some teams. The team that everybody keeps raving, I’ve not seen them play. Cal-Santa Barbara. Everybody keeps saying how good they are. …
“I’ll be interested to see how this thing plays out.”