Mike Schwartz has been on the job as East Carolina basketball coach for about five weeks. He talked about the priorities he has addressed after his first recruiting class was announced on Thursday.
“I think that from the beginning, the most important things to me were three areas and that was the people of this university and the people around the community and in terms of getting a chance to meet them, getting a chance to connect with them, immediately that was definitely at the very top of the list,” said the former Tennessee assistant.
“Right there with that was our current roster and current players and the limited time we had for practice and workouts. And then right along with that was recruiting, so that was 1-A, 1-B, and 1- C. … They were all at the same tier level. It just was getting a chance to meet the people of ECU, and the community, our current roster, practice-wise, workouts and sorting through those things.
“And then recruiting, getting the chance to establish our foundation for our 2022 recruiting class. Those were definitely all the top priorities.”
Schwartz is still working on some elements of his staff but he expressed confidence in the assistants that are in place.
“We got a great staff, staff that I’m very excited that chose to have come here and have the opportunity to work with them,” Schwartz said. “They were all in good places prior to coming here, so it says a lot about ECU that they left the positions they were in to come here. But just very excited about the staff from top to bottom.
“Jake Morton, assistant coach, he was at Jacksonville State last year. They went to the NCAA tournament and he’s been a highly successful assistant coach for many, many years.
“Riley Davis was an assistant coach at UT-Arlington. He and I worked together at University of Tennessee four years ago before he left and went to UT-Arlington.
“Nick Matson, he and I worked together at Fresno State. He’s been a long time assistant coach, both at Fresno State and University of Texas-El Paso. He also has worked with Billy Kennedy and Steve Prohm and Johnny Dawkins back at Stanford when he was a young coach, so he has had great experience.
“Josh Giardina is Director of Player Development. He was with us at Tennessee last year.
“Our Director of Basketball Operation is Jesse Higdon, and she was in the athletics administration department at Tennessee last year.
“We still have a little bit more to add as our staff. It is not fully complete, but the staff that has joined us so far, I couldn’t be more excited.”
First recruiting class
Schwartz and staff hit the ground running to put together a recruiting class.
“We got the seven guys that we wanted,” Schwartz said. “That’s the most important thing. We looked at it and we were very meticulous in what we wanted to add in terms of position, and type of player and all the kind of pillars of our program from off the court and character, to what they bring on the court and then their specific skill sets as basketball players.
“Number one, first and foremost, we’re excited about them as people and student athletes. I think they’re all people that are excited about representing this university and representing our program. And then from a basketball perspective, guys that we really believe in, we’re excited to have the opportunity to get them here this summer, and hopefully they’ll make a immediate impact and we feel like a number of them will.”
Among those transferring from ECU are Tristen Newton, Brandon Suggs and Alanzo Frink. Newton averaged 17.7 points in 34.7 minutes before finding a new home at Connecticut. Suggs averaged 10.1 points and 29.6 minutes. Suggs is headed to Central Florida. Frink put up 5.7 points in 15.8 minutes.
Graduation losses include Vance Jackson, who averaged 13.1 points and a team-high 6.0 rebounds for a 15-15 club in 2021-22. The Pirates were 6-11 in the American Athletic Conference. The top six scorers from last season are gone.
“We have not been able to have a full practice with a full team yet, and obviously half of the team or more will be new faces this summer, and as we get into next fall and into the season,” Schwartz said. “The bottom line is, I think some of that is still an unknown because other than the six remaining players that are here right now, none of them were heavy-minute players, I mean, we all know that … guys that played the most volume of minutes, won’t be here next season.
“There is a bit of an unknown in terms of the way these roles play out for the returning guys, because they will have to elevate their play and elevate their roles and then obviously anytime new players come in, there’s a transition in terms of where they’re coming from, whether it be high school, or junior college. or coming from another university as Quentin Diboundje is from Tennessee and Jaden Walker is from Iowa State.
“But you know, I think we feel really excited about the talent level of this group. I think when you talk about some of the more experienced and big physical guards, when you look at Jaden, 6’4″ combo guard that could play both on and off the ball. Quentin Diboundje, a 6’5″ legitimate physical athletic wing, Benjamin Bayela is 6’6”, big wing that is very versatile on the offensive end. All three guys have the bodies and the experience competing against high level, high major basketball players on both ends of the floor.
“So you would hope that would make an impact right from the jump, just from a physical standpoint. They’ve all been coached by great coaches. Benjamin has been coached by Steve Green (South Plains, TX), one of the very best coaches in the country at the junior college level. Jaden Walker has been coached by Steve Prohm and T.J. Otzelberger at Iowa State. He has been coached, he has a foundation of really good coaching and understanding. And obviously we had Quentin at Tennessee where he had a chance to play for Coach (Rick) Barnes, a Hall of Fame coach that’s as good of a coach as there is in the country.
“So those three guys, whether it’s the mental side of what they’ve been through and their experience and where they are physically and their bodies and what they’ve experienced, you hope those guys can make a pretty immediate impact. And then we were able to go and recruit some high school players that we’re very excited about and that will have the opportunity as incoming freshmen to make an impact and play as freshmen.
“Whether that’s Ezra Ausar from Charlotte (Liberty Heights), who is somebody we’re really excited about as a power forward, is 6’8″, 6’9”, 230 to 240-pound power forward. Very athletic and physical. Really has a unique combination of ball skills with that size, that I don’t know if everyone realizes it. They’re all going to have a lot to learn, but he’s got something special with that.
And we’re very excited about Saxby Sunderland and Elijah Jones from the D.C. area. … Both guys have competed with some very fierce competition. … So they’ve experienced that. Kalib LaCount from Los Angeles was the LA City Player of the Year, someone that led his team to the open division finals.
“So we’re very excited about this group of players and this group of guys coming in. But it’ll all take shape this summer. It’ll take some form this summer when we all get on the court together at the same time.”
Six players are expected to return from the 2021-22 roster.
“I just commend them first and foremost,” Schwartz said. “I commend them. I think all of them went through a very difficult spring with what they went through at the end of their season, in terms of a coaching transition. And they sometimes end up having to deal with it more than anybody because they’re in limbo during that time, and during that transition.
“So I commend them and the ones that have stayed and maintained their focus and diligence on the court, in the classroom and are still here getting ready to wrap up finals, a lot of credit to them. And I’m very proud of those guys, and we had a very difficult spring in terms of, we challenged the guys on the court, what we did, conditioning-wise, practice-wise with the allotted time that we were slotted in terms of postseason workouts.
“At one point we were down to five or six guys in practice and those guys stuck it out and they did everything that we asked them to do. They did it with a great mindset and a very positive mindset. Looking forward to the vision of this program, the direction that we hope this program can go. So I’m very excited about all the guys that are here right now, whether it be R.J. Felton or Javon Small or Brandon Johnson or Ludgy Debaut. Wynston Tabbs, who is still recovering from his surgery this past season, has been fantastic.
“So all of them, David Kasanganay, Marlon Lestin, have all done a really nice job of trying to adapt in a difficult situation. And I’m very understanding of that. But by the same token, we’re just going to build on the positives that they have had here in the past with the coaching staff they had, which was a very good coaching staff.
“And they have built their foundation. … Now we have to set our vision for what we want the program to be. And now we have to move it in that direction and build on those positives that they had. And so these six, seven guys that stayed around and have decided they want to be a part of it, I have nothing but respect and commend them and I’m looking forward to coaching them.”
Offseason development and team bonding are important factors.
“Right now, it’s slow,” Schwartz said. “We spent most of our time in the gym. … We had a chance to do some team meals together and things like that in the spring. Now a lot of them will go home, but some of them have elected to stay here, which is great, because that will give us more time to be together.
“We’ll address that when we get to the summer, when everybody arrives on campus together and we will absolutely be doing quite a bit of that, whether it be normal stuff that you do in the gym, or spending a lot of time together off the court. To me, that’s a really important aspect of a program, is that there is an organic family feel and we’re going to have that here.”
Vols loss sends Schwartz to ECU
Schwartz was introduced as coach of the Pirates before the NCAA Tournament. He stayed with the Volunteers during the Big Dance. Tennessee was coming off a 65-50 win over Texas A&M in Tampa for the Southeastern Conference tournament championship. The Vols downed Longwood, 88-56, before a 76-68 loss to Michigan allowed Schwartz to get started at ECU.
Schwartz said the Wolverines got hot while the Vols cooled off down the stretch.
“That one eight minute spell of not being able to shoot the ball can end your season really quickly,” Schwartz said. “And it was pretty much that simple because we had been playing pretty well the entire game. We were in a good position — up six, with eight and a half minutes to go in the game — coming out of a timeout. And honestly the momentum was probably in our favor at that time.
“It can swing quick, especially in that tournament. I’ve had a chance to be a part of that tournament quite a bit, fortunately in my career, from first-round games and First Four games all the way to the Final Four.
“I’ve had a chance to see what those environments and games are about. And that’s just what happened that game. You can look back. It’s always easy to look back and say, ‘We wish we could have done this and wish we could have done that.’
“But at the end of the day, again, we had a six-point lead with eight and a half minutes to go and Michigan got hot. Give them the credit. They started making some really, really good plays on offense. They started making shots and we were not able to answer those at that time.
“It swung pretty quickly and it’s not rocket science on that one. That’s what happened at the end of that game. And you give them all the credit, they played a great game. Our guys fought, played a great game and the last eight and a half minutes, they were better than we were.”
Scheduling is a work in progress for the new regime.
“Whatever has been on the books prior to arriving is kind of the baseline on what you have to work with,” Schwartz said. … “When we got here, there was only one game on the books.
“There’s one game. So we are in the midst of putting that together. … It’s a very fluid process right now because we’re here in April and May trying to put together a schedule for next season because there was not much that had been scheduled other than one return game from a game that was played here last year.
“There’s been really good traction and very good, positive momentum with schools and conversations about games and about starting series. My philosophy is we want to play a great schedule as soon as we can.
“I don’t know if it will happen or not this year, because like I said, I think any scheduling is something that’s worked on year round and years in advance. I’ve done scheduling for the last three years at the University of Tennessee, and we have games planned out into 2025.
“So scheduling is something that a lot of thought goes into it year to year, and it’s not done in just the off season for the next season. It’s not done at the end of one season to put it together for the next season.
“So that’s what we’re doing right now, which is perfectly fine, which is good. We’re starting from scratch. It’s just… I don’t know if our true scheduling philosophy of what we’d like to see over the next few years, in terms of bringing quality opponents into Minges Coliseum, starting home and home series, where we go play on the road and that team returns or vice versa, we start at home and then we return the game there.
“We would like to be in national multi-team tournaments. We would like to partake in those, some of those things you cannot get done in year one because a lot of people are very far along in scheduling. So we’re going to do our best to see if we can get bits and pieces of that scheduling philosophy.
“We would like to play a very competitive non-conference schedule that prepares us for a rigorous AAC schedule. That’s definitely the goal. And with that being said, we want to challenge our guys to go on the road and play in great environments.
“That’s why you come to this high level of college basketball, is to play in those environments on the road and by the same token and more important than anything, we want to bring high level opponents into our building, so we have a chance for our fan base and our guys to experience how special Minges Coliseum is.”
Schwartz was asked if there are immediate facility needs at ECU.
“No,” he said. “Right now we aren’t focusing on any upgrades or anything like that we need. We have a great place with great facilities. We have everything that we need and we’re excited about them, an opportunity to get better. We have a beautiful practice facility and we haven’t had a chance to dive into some of those areas yet, as we spoke about, some of our priorities to start within the first month or two, we’re really about the people, our roster and recruiting.
“So we’ll dive into that and delve into some of those things. I know this administration and the leadership here has been fantastic and been so overwhelmingly supportive in terms of wanting to make things better and do upgrades and improvements in any areas possible. But I think we have to look at the whole athletic department as a whole with that.
“And how can we just continue to make this athletic department, not us individually as basketball, but this whole athletic department, how can we get better? How can we improve our facilities? And I think we’ll take a holistic approach on that.”
Schwartz likes to watch the NBA playoffs but he’s been too busy to follow the action closely this season.
“I love the NBA,” Schwartz said. “I love the NBA playoffs. We have several players that I’ve coached and we’ve coached that are playing, which is really neat. You always pull for them. And you’re always excited when you were talking to them and hearing about it. But this year, at least probably in the last five or six years, the least amount in terms of being able to sit and really watch games just because we’ve been traveling so much. And so inundated with what we’re doing here.
“Grant Williams is playing for the Boston Celtics, we coached him at Tennessee for three years and he’s had a really great first three years in the NBA.
“Yves Pons is playing with the Memphis Grizzlies right now. We coached him for four years at Tennessee. He is not on the active roster right now with Memphis, but he’s there with the team in the playoffs. He’s just not active at the moment.
“Those two guys in particular are in the playoffs. Obviously, Coach Barnes, Kevin Durant, played for him at Texas and while Brooklyn was in the series, he was with Brooklyn, but their playoff run is over.
“Whether it be guys that I have coached specifically, or our family at Tennessee or coaching tree or guys over the years that we’ve coached well, backed into other places we’ve been together. And it might be Jake Morton, Riley Davis, Nick Matson, it might be anybody on the staff.
“I think those this time of year, that gets to be really fun when you’re watching playoff games and those guys are out there on the court, or you’re communicating with them or talking with them via call or text about what they’re doing on a big stage. I think it’s always rewarding to see those guys have success and be able to just experience that environment.”
College athletics is in the midst of a transformational period. Schwartz wouldn’t advocate for additional changes.
“In the last year, college basketball has changed more in one year than it had in the previous 20 years combined,” Schwartz said. “The two biggest things are the name, image, likeness, the NIL initiative and the transfer portal, in terms of immediate eligibility.
“I don’t think college basketball could sustain any more change. And I don’t think that’d be a good idea because the game already is very different. And what I mean by the game, I don’t mean the actual basketball portion. I mean, everything that goes into college basketball and recruiting and rosters and having a team from year to year. … It looks so different than it has in years passed.
“And the sudden change over the last year has been very dramatic when you look at it. And I think when you look at some of the change on rosters, and some of the changeover, some of the legends of this game deciding to retire, whether it be Coach K (Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski), Roy Williams (UNC) or Jay Wright (Villanova), I think it probably all plays into it.
“So, I could not sit here and tell you any other changes that need to happen. I think what needs to happen is I think everyone needs to settle in on this new version of college basketball with the transfer portal and with NIL, and let’s somehow hopefully come to somewhat of a balance with that — where that seems to at least normalize a little bit, because I would say there’s not a coach in America that would tell you it feels normal right now, because it doesn’t.
‘But it is the new way of the game. And it is something that we will all adapt to. But I don’t think we need to do any more changes. I think what we need to do is somehow stabilize this, so this great game can continue to move forward and continue to improve.”