In a figurative sense, East Carolina won’t run into Williams Arena at Minges Coliseum from the East end of the facility to start the basketball season on Nov. 9, as much as the Pirates will emerge from the transfer portal and an extensive journey on the recruiting trail.
So it seems for Coach Joe Dooley as he starts another rebuild in his fourth season since returning to ECU.
And, of course, the Pirates will be going forward without Jayden Gardner, a first team All-American Athletic Conference selection who will continue to wear No. 1 at Virginia as a senior.
Gardner and nine more players exited after ECU went 8-11 overall and 2-10 in the AAC during a season fragmented by COVID and affected by injuries.
ECU has been working to bring together a roster that includes 11 players who either did not get on the court last season or are totally new to the program.
“We’ve slowly been grinding away,” Dooley said of preseason practice Friday. “Obviously this is the time of the year when you’re trying to get better and we’ve had about 16 or 17 practices. Had a couple of two-a-days. We’ll be on (Friday), we’ll be off (Saturday).
“We’ve got a little bit of a routine where we’re here three days on, or four days on, and one day off, until we get to the season.”
The diminished restrictions of the pandemic have allowed more effective preparation this preseason.
“During the fall, August and September, we have the guys for four hours a week on the court, and they can do all the shooting they want on their own,” Dooley said. “So they’ve done a good job of getting extra shots up, more team stuff this year, obviously incorporating skills. We implemented things earlier than we have previously because we were able to do it.”
Impact of the portal
Factors such as the portal may tend to make higher numbers of new players the norm each season — and not just for the Pirates. That’s a reality that Dooley acknowledges.
“Unfortunately, yes,” said the ECU coach. “But I do think it’ll be the same when you look around the country and you look at some of the blue bloods and the amount of guys they lost to the transfer portal. That never happened before and now I think it’s going to be a regular thing … with guys transferring. I do think it’s going to be regular. So you have to adjust and be prepared for it.”
The Pirates reaped from the transfer portal as new NCAA rules allowed players to change programs without sitting out a season.
Guard Wynston Tabbs comes in with a nice resume from Boston College. Vance Jackson (Arkansas) has size and shooting range. Alanzo Frink (South Carolina) should provide some inside scoring and rebounding.
Freshmen include forward/guard Alexis Reyes, guard Javon Small, guard R.J. Felton, forward Tay Mosher, forward Brandon Johnson and forward Marlon Lestin.
Walk-ons David Kasanganay, a junior guard who transferred from Navy, and freshman guard Brenden Kelly, whose grandfather played professionally, were in the program last season but did not play.
Returners include guard Tristen Newton, swing man Brandon Suggs, guard J.J. Miles, guard Tremont Robinson-White and post player Ludgy Debaut. The lettermen are a balanced group. Miles averaged 9.8 points per game in 2020-21. Suggs averaged 9.5, Newton contributed 8.7 and Robinson-White scored at an 8.1 clip. Debaut led the Pirates in blocked shots with 19 in 19 games while pulling down 3.1 rebounds in an average of 15.5 minutes.
Scrimmage with Wolfpack
Dooley will use scrimmages in defining the rotation.
“We’ve got two,” Dooley said. “We’ve got North Carolina State at North Carolina State next Saturday (Oct. 23) and East Tennessee State here the following Saturday.”
According to NCAA regulations, the scrimmages will be closed to the public.
Dooley talked about his plans for playing time over the next two weeks.
“I’m trying to get everybody some minutes,” he said. “Trying to get some continuity as you start paring down who the rotation is going to be. I don’t think you’ll pare it down as much for State as you’ll pare it down a little bit more for East Tennessee State the following week. And, obviously, as you get closer to the season opening, you’ll pare it down even more.”
Dooley filled a staff vacancy during the summer with the arrival of Steve DeMeo.
“He’s got a wide variety of experience,” Dooley said. “He’s won a national championship as a junior college coach. He’s been in the Big East at Providence and St. John’s. … He has an understanding of different recruiting areas and a lot of recruiting contacts. And he’s also been a head coach.”
South Carolina State comes to ECU on Nov. 9 for a 7 p.m. tipoff. The Bulldogs will bring a first-year coach, Tony Madlock, a former Memphis player and assistant, who will be looking to improve last season’s 1-17 record.
“We’ve already pre-scouted them,” Dooley said. “What we did was try to find a few actions or special things that we can do. Incorporate in some drills in the pre-season that’ll create some familiarity. We call them ‘three man series.’ We’re also being prepared for different things defensively.
“He was an assistant at Memphis. Memphis is a pressure team. Played at a fast pace. So you would anticipate, but Tony’s been around, I mean, he played at Memphis. He’s been at SEC schools, … so you would look back and he’s probably got a little bit of influence from a few places he’s been.”
Despite the influx of new players, ECU has a corps of returners, too.
“We’ve got more athleticism,” Dooley said. “We’ve got a little bit more maturity. We’ve got five guys back that have played minutes. Then you throw in some guys that have played at the (power conference) level that have experienced it and have seen it.
“So it’s not like the novelty of they haven’t seen it before. And I think the young guys, the freshmen … have really brought a sense of energy and they really like to play, they like to work and you have that youthful enthusiasm. And I think the older guys have done a pretty good job of trying to explain to them what it’s really like.”
Thoughts on AAC
The Pirates will start AAC play on Dec. 29 at home against Wichita State.
Houston is coming off a Final Four season.
“Until someone could knock them off their perch, Houston has established a culture and established probably the respect to be the top team,” Dooley said. “Obviously Memphis had an unbelievable recruiting year. They have some guys back. … From a talent standpoint, I think they can match up with anybody in the country.
“SMU did a good job in the transfer market. Wichita State has the preseason player of the year (Tyson Etienne), and they have three stars, a minimum of three stars back. … Some good answers for some questions, for some of the schools and then some questions that have to be answered for others.”
Central Florida, Houston and Cincinnati, will be leaving the AAC for the Big 12 at some point.
“That’s disappointing, but that’s beyond control,” Dooley said. “So I think the league is trying to regroup and calculate its next moves and that’s more of a presidential and an athletic department decision. They’re the ones that have to handle those deals. We’ll keep our eyes and ears open and when they make decisions, we’ll move on.”
Dooley shared his thoughts on factors that will influence the program reaching its potential in 2021-22.
“Just creating some continuity,” Dooley said “I think in the preseason, we need to get some continuity. We’ve done a lot more up-and-down stuff playing. I think the good news is we’ve got everybody back out on the court for about a week and I think that’ll help. I think the continuity on both ends of the floor and just growing as the season goes along. We need to continue to get better.”