ECU changing expectations with Dooley, star freshman

The Pirates have benefited from the work ethic instilled by their coach and the play of Jayden Gardner

Joe Dooley's team is off to a 7-1 start this season, 1-1 in the AAC (Rob Goldberg / ECU Athletics)

GREENVILLE — The East Carolina basketball team was 8-8, 1-3 in the American Athletic Conference heading into Wednesday’s game against Temple.

If that record sounds familiar, it should.

This marks the fifth straight season in which the Pirates have either been at or one game under .500 after the first 16 games. Any resemblance between those previous four teams and this one, however, is merely coincidental.

Thanks to the arrival of new/old coach Joe Dooley and freshman sensation Jayden Gardner, there are signs that ECU might finally be ready to break its stagnant pattern and take some meaningful steps toward relevance on the hardwood.

“We’ve made progress the last few weeks,” Dooley said Monday on the AAC’s weekly coaches teleconference. “We’ve definitely gotten better. There’s still a long way to go, but I think we are gaining on becoming a better team than we were earlier in the year.”

The difference in the Pirates has been especially noticeable over the past three games. Although they were only able to win once in that stretch — an exhilarating 73-71 upset of AAC heavyweight Cincinnati — they showed that they’re narrowing the gap with their conference rivals in competitive road losses at Memphis and Central Florida.

Dooley’s influence is responsible for much of that growth.

Returning to Greenville as the only coach in school history to post a winning career record while at ECU, having gone 57-52 in his first tenure from 1995-99, Dooley has brought a culture-changing toughness and optimism since being hired from Florida Gulf Coast in April.

His offseason conditioning program and in-game adjustments both played major roles in the win against the Bearcats.

“Last year, we would have never thought we could have come back and beat Cincinnati,” said sophomore guard K.J. Davis, adding that the victory was a testament to “hard work and growth.”

As much as Dooley has brought to the program during his short time back, it’s the influence of freshman Gardner that has made the biggest impact.

Described as a “foundational player” by his coach, the undersized big man leads the AAC in scoring at 19.4 points per game and is second in rebounding at 9.5. Monday, he earned his third conference Rookie of the Week award after recording career highs of 35 points and 20 rebounds in Sunday’s 76-65 loss at UCF.

“He’s a guy that from a dependability standpoint, every day you get the same type of effort, and I think it’s been rewarded,” Dooley said. “The good thing for us and for him is that he still has another level to go to.”

Gardner is already playing at a high level. He is only the second freshman in AAC history to score 35 points and the third player overall to record as many as three 30-point games in a season.

And yet, his most impressive performance to date may have been a game in which he was held scoreless during the entire first half. It happened against Cincinnati.

Instead of getting down on himself and struggling the rest of the way, Gardner adjusted in the second half. He went 7 for 10 from the free-throw line and scored 13 points, serving notice that he can be a difference-maker no matter what the circumstances or who he’s matched up against.

“I just had to stay patient and my time came,” he said after the Cincinnati game. “I had to stay aggressive, keep rebounding and play a lot of defense.

Freshman Jayden Gardner leads the AAC in scoring at 19.4 points per game and is second in rebounding at 9.5. (Rob Goldberg / ECU Athletics)

“I thrive in situations like this. I love playing against the best competition. It’s nice to play against taller players, stronger players with different feels, different game plans.”

It’s a good thing Gardner likes those challenges because, at 6-foot-6, every opponent he lines up against in the low post is bigger than him. Sunday, he gave up a full foot in height to UCF’s 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall.

A three-star prospect coming out of Heritage High School in Wake Forest, Gardner would likely have been pursued by schools with a much higher basketball pedigree had he been a couple of inches taller.

As it is he has to work for everything he gets, a mindset Dooley hopes will soon become the trademark of ECU’s program.

The next step in the process is to surround him — and other young players such as sophomore guards Davis and 2018 AAC Rookie of the Year Shawn Williams — with even more talent and size so that close losses like those last week at Memphis and UCF will start turning into signature wins and a record well above the .500 mark.

According to Gardner, the recent upset is a sign of things to come for the Pirates.

“It’s a new era. It’s the Dooley era,” the star freshman said. “We practiced so hard, we worked so hard for this. So why not reward ourselves with wins?”