GREENVILLE — The first step toward changing the culture of a team or athletic program is to establish a new one. That’s what Joe Dooley has been working on doing since being hired as East Carolina’s old/new basketball coach back in April.
Dooley said he’s excited about the progress his players have made after a summer full of conditioning, fundamentals and hard work.
At the same time, he acknowledged that the process of building a basketball culture at a school not known for having one is still in its early stages as the Pirates christened their new season at home Tuesday with an 81-56 win against Delaware State.
“I don’t think you can microwave anything,” Dooley said at his team’s media day Oct. 25. “We can’t just come in and say, ‘Let’s do A and they do A.’ It takes a transitional period. I don’t care where you are.
“When I coached (as an assistant) at Kansas there was a transitional time. When I went to Florida Gulf Coast there was a transitional time. I do think for the most part the guys have tried hard, have given good effort and have had a good attitude, which is step one.”
Dooley is the only basketball coach in school history with a winning career record while at ECU, having gone 57-52 in his previous tenure from 1995-99 before being fired in a highly unpopular move by then-athletic director Mike Hamrick.
In the 19 seasons since his departure from Greenville, the Pirates have managed just four nonlosing seasons — two of which were an even .500.
As daunting a task as Dooley faces in reversing that negative trend, he at least has the advantage of working with a nearly blank canvas. This year’s roster is comprised of just one scholarship senior and six players that had never previously played a game in an ECU jersey.
But while the lack of returners has meant less for the new coach to undo before his own new system begins to take hold, it also means that he’s not entirely sure what or who his team will be during the early part of the schedule.
“Right now, one thing I think we are is a bunch of guys that do give really good effort,” Dooley said. “Who are we remains to be seen. We’re trying to figure out where the pieces fit together, when we sub, how do we play.”
One thing for which Dooley is already certain is that senior Isaac Fleming has assumed the role of the Pirates’ unquestioned leader.
The 6-foot-4 transfer from Hawaii led the team with 144 assists and 37 steals while ranking second in scoring at 12.5 points per game in his first season at ECU last year. He scored 12 points in Tuesday’s opener and has impressed his new coach with both his work ethic and a playing style that helps make everyone on the court better.
“Isaac has done very well,” Dooley said. “(with) his ability to get shots and get other people shots.”
Among the Pirates’ other stalwarts are sophomore guard Shawn Williams, the 2017-18 American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year, and blue-collar big man Dimitrije Spasojevic and fellow sophomore Justin Whatley, 6-foot-8 wing.
Among the newcomers, Virginia Tech transfer Seth LeDay was finally able to make his long-awaited ECU debut against Delaware State after dealing with NCAA eligibility issues, tying Fleming for high-scoring honors with 12 points, while 6-foot-6, 245-pound forward Jayden Gardner from Heritage High School in Wake Forest is the most polished member of a talented and deep freshman class.
Dooley said that the other rookies — guards Tae Hardy, Deshaun Wade and Tyler Foster, along with center Rico Quinton — have all had their moments, but have still yet to gain consistency.
“We just have to find those pieces that fit,” Dooley said. “Then when we get some depth it will be even more fun to try and fit some more pieces in.”
The young Pirates have already given a glimpse of their potential by beating in-state ACC rival Wake Forest in a closed scrimmage last week. Even with a nonconference schedule seemingly set up for the Pirates to gain confidence and get off to a fast start, Dooley is trying his best to temper his initial expectations.
“One of the biggest faults I have is I’ve got no patience,” he said. “We’ve got nine freshmen or sophomores trying to learn a new system, so that’s been an adjustment. These guys will pick it up, it’s just a little slower because they are younger.
“I have to remember that and our staff has to remember that. We have to coach every possession. That’s good in some regards and bad in other regards. There are certain things you take for granted that guys know that they don’t know and that’s not their fault.”