Michael Schwartz has been working steadily since March at putting personnel in place, preparing for the 2022-23 basketball season and recruiting for the future.
Schwartz anticipates that the first game will be Tuesday, Nov. 8, in Williams Arena at Minges Coliseum.
The new Pirates coach announced four staff additions on Wednesday. Those include Nick Matson as director of player personnel, Josh Giardina as director of player development, Keith Pough as assistant strength and conditioning coach, and Matthew Winsburg as assistant to the head coach.
“Just excited … ,” Schwartz said about the incoming staff. “They all really represent everything that we want our program to be about. And number one thing, being the character of them all as people, and then as you get into their specific roles with the team on the court, off the court.”
Most recently, Matson has been an assistant coach at Texas-El Paso, Giardina has been a graduate assistant at Tennessee, Pough has been an assistant director of basketball performance at Maryland and Winsburg comes from Lincoln Trail College, where he was an assistant coach.
“Just very excited to have our staff very, very close to being completely finalized now,” Schwartz said. “Every one of them were guys that have made a really strong impact with our team in the time they’ve been here. They’ve been here for a little bit prior to us announcing this, just going through some of the different processes to get it announced. But, very excited and pleased with the time they’ve been here.”
Previously, Schwartz had brought assistant coaches Jake Morton and Riley Davis aboard as well as placing Jesse Higdon in the role of director of basketball operations.
With eight new players joining the program, summer workouts have had a degree of urgency.
“The guys are working really hard, that’s the most important thing,” Schwartz said. “I think we’re spending a lot of time with them, … within our NCAA guideline practices, our times that we’re allotted per week, … approximately three times a week. … We do all-team workouts.
“They’ve really bought into the system of understanding what it takes for them to be in the gym on their own and working. And I think they’ve done a great job with that. So, we’re excited there and we’re watching a lot of film and doing things like that with them because every day is learning something new.
“We’ve only been doing this for four weeks now as a full roster. And we’re still not even completely full because Valentino Pinedo is in Spain playing with his national team. So obviously haven’t had a chance to connect with him in terms of it.
“We have 15 of our 16 guys here and we’re in practice, whether it’s two to three times a week and the guys are working really hard and trying to understand our system and pick up the scheme on both sides of the ball and understand what we want our standard to be player development-wise and what it takes to improve in the off season.”
Schwartz will be drawing from a talent pool that includes returning players from a 15-15 team that was 6-11 in the American Athletic Conference.
“From a returning aspect, I think two of the guys that really have stood out have been Brandon Johnson and R.J. Felton,” Schwartz said. “Brandon is shooting the ball really well. So, we’re excited about that. And he is continuing to grow with his activity on the glass. He had 19 rebounds in one game last year and we need Brandon to be a guy that can be active on the glass, potentially active, being able to make decisions off of a defensive rebound and push the basketball. I know his numbers didn’t indicate it, but we feel like Brandon has a chance to be a really good shooter. And he’s worked really hard this summer.
“R.J. — felt in the same thing. I think R.J. has brought a great, a great leadership spirit about himself with the team, whether it’s with the returning guys or with the new guys. He’s really bought into the defensive side of the ball. We’re going to hang our hat and what’s going to be paramount in our program and I think he embodies that. R.J. has spent a lot of time in the gym and he’s shooting the ball well right now. So, we hope we can continue for him to continue to grow in that area.
“As far as some of the new guys that have come in, Jaden Walker, a transfer from Iowa State has had some really good moments in practice. You know, both sides of the ball. We’re excited about what he can do defensively. And as a bigger guard, whether he’s playing as the point guard or playing off the ball, he has a great knack to finish around the basket. He has also spent a lot of time, shooting from behind the arc this summer. He wants to continue to improve there.
“Benjamin Bayela transferred from South Plains College. He has really made a strong impact in practice just as a big physical guard, someone that he’s a natural scorer, or at least he’s comfortable looking to score the basketball. He’s learning how to do it within our system now, as we all are, as the whole team is, but he has had some really good moments in practice.
“Everyone else has had their days, Everybody’s learning something new every day right now, whether it’s offense, defense, film, it’s something new. So, I don’t think anybody has been able to excel to the level that we’re hopeful they will, as we get later in the summer and into the preseason. And, obviously, into the season.”
After averaging 35 points per game and earning Player of the Year honors in Los Angeles, Kalib LaCount, who is 5 feet, 8 inches, is an intriguing addition to the Pirates.
“He’s had a good summer,” Schwartz said. “I think he’s working just like all these guys, particularly the freshmen. They’re at a different level and working like they haven’t worked before. That’s normal across the country. It’s not just about ECU. All incoming freshmen from high school, they’re at a different level when they get to their respective universities in the summertime.
“He’s going through that transition. Defensively, he’s been able to make a similar impact. … If Kalib LaCount is not guarding the ball 94 feet, if he’s not underneath pressuring the basketball, then he’s not doing what he’s supposed to be doing. And so from that standpoint, he has done that since he’s been here. And I don’t see that changing.
“He knows that’s what he has to do for us to be successful and what for him to be successful. So, he has been able to do that. And that’s been exciting.
“Scoring the basketball. I think it’s like anything. I think the way what you do and how you score in high school is not why you’re in college or how you’re going to score in college all the time. I think there’s a component of it. He’s a really good shooter and he’s shown us that, but Kalib’s not going to be able to get deep into the paint all the time at the college level. I think there will be times he will.
“He has had his moments. But I think like most little guards, if you start getting too deep and you start getting in there amongst the trees, more negative things happen than positive. So, I think he’s learning that. He’s understanding what length and real length feels like on the ball and what real length feels like at the rim defensively.
“So, he’s making those adjustments and four weeks in, I’ll say it like most of our guys, he’s had his moments. He’s also had his moments where film has really helped him understand. … He needs to make some changes and needs to make some adjustments so he can stay successful and productive.”
Who the Pirates will play has been a work in progress that is nearing completion.
“There are some contracts that are still floating out there back and forth between legal departments of universities that are well beyond the basketball program and beyond even the athletic department. … It’s just a matter of everything being signed, sealed, delivered, and then we can announce it, but we really feel pretty confident barring anything crazy happening that we’re down to just needing one game.”
ECU’s priority for the next recruiting class is a true big man.
“We have one scholarship on paper right now, and that’s Ludgy Debaut. He’s a senior. He’ll be graduating. What I can say for sure is that within the 2023 class, whether it be high school, hopefully, or transfer portal or junior college or international, or some other means that we know we want to sign a true center.
“It’ll be a great opportunity for whomever that is. Right now, that’s our only scholarship. And so, we know Ludgy has already graduated. He’s done well. He just won the award for student athlete.
“We are, hopefully, in a good position with several potential student athletes that could fit that role. But everything is so different than it used to be because of the transfer portal.
“So, what we have on paper is one scholarship, but we make sure that we’re prepared and we know what’s out there in the ’23, ’24 classes and even beyond. For ’23, the one thing I can definitely say with the utmost confidence is that we are looking to sign a true post player.”
The efforts this summer have generated some buzz.
“Just really excited, excited about this group and excited about the way that they have been working this summer,” Schwartz said. “We know it’s not going to happen overnight, but it has to happen every day. As long as we are focused on getting better every day, I think we’ll have a better feel on what we’re able to accomplish as we get closer into the season.
“It just can’t stop once the season starts, we have to find a way to keep improving throughout this whole year. I don’t think that ever stops for any program and we’re no different.”