Joe Dooley has taken the concept of “tearing it down to build it back up” to an extreme in the second season of his second tenure as East Carolina’s basketball coach.
Thanks to a combination of graduation, transfer and other attrition, only two players remain from last year’s 10-21 team.
In their place are 11 newcomers — seven junior college transfers and four incoming freshmen — that have helped Dooley and his hard-working staff to quickly restock the program with players of their choosing rather than having to make do with those recruited by former coach Jeff Lebo.
No construction project, however, can truly succeed without a solid foundation upon which to build.
In Dooley’s case, he has one in sophomore Jayden Gardner who, along with senior Seth LeDay, is one of the team’s only two returners.
The reigning American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year, Gardner led the Pirates in 11 statistical categories last season, including scoring at 16.3 points per game, while finishing second in the league with a rebounding average of 8.5.
The 6-foot-7 forward from Wake Forest showed how dominant he can in a game against Central Florida last season by becoming the first ECU player since 1966 to record 30 points and 20 rebounds in the same game. He led all Division I freshmen with 171 made free throws and was in the top 10 nationally in both scoring and rebounding among rookies.
And he did it while playing out of position as an undersized center.
This season, Gardner will have some help inside with the addition of two 6-foot-11 JUCO big men — Edra Luster, a rim protector from Tyler College in Texas, and power forward Ludgy Debaut from Northwest Florida State.
“Our size gives us so many more options,” Dooley said. “We could play small with anybody last year, but we couldn’t really play big. When one of our bigger guys ran into foul trouble, we couldn’t adjust effectively.
“We had Jayden (Gardner) or Seth (LeDay) trying to guard some of the big guys at Central Florida and Wichita State and it was fair to them. They did their best, but we should be in much better shape with that this year.”
Not only did the Pirates get bigger, but they also got more athletic by adding four wing players of 6-6 or taller.
Bitumba Baruti is a former three-star prospect who played a season at Washington, where he was recruited by current Pirates assistant coach Raphael Chillious, before spending last season at Chipola Junior College in Florida.
J.J. Miles is an in-state shooting guard who averaged 15 points per game in leading Cape Fear Community College to a 27-6 record and a trip to the national tournament last season.
Miles James averaged 12 points, five rebounds and two assists while shooting nearly 40 percent from 3-point range at Palm Beach State, while prep school product Brandon Suggs is a versatile player who chose ECU over Auburn, Georgia Tech and Texas A&M.
The rest of the class consists of 6-1 JUCO point guard Tyrie Jackson; 6-1 point guard Tremont Robinson from Northwest Mississippi Community College; prolific 6-5 scorer Tristen Newton from Burges High School in El Paso, Texas; and 6-4 Baltimore high school combo guard Logan Curtis.
“We have enough talent to compete in this league,” said LeDay, who started his career at Virginia Tech. “It just takes time to put all the pieces together, but we’ve made a lot of progress since the first practice. Jayden and I know what the coaches expect, so we’re trying to bring the new guys along.