GREENVILLE — The East Carolina basketball team is 5-0 heading into its American Athletic Conference opener at SMU on Wednesday.
But that, as far as coach Joe Dooley is concerned, isn’t the most encouraging aspect of the Pirates’ best start since 2012-13.
“With everything going on, we need to keep getting better, which I feel we are,” Dooley said. “If you look at the sheer numbers, KenPom and all those deals, we’ve cut it in two-thirds.
“We’ve gone from (being ranked) in the 300s to the low 100s, so the metrics are saying we’re trending the right way. Now the whole thing is how do you flip some close games, how do you play better at home, upset a couple of those upper-tier (AAC) teams, and how do you win some of those 50-50 games? That’s part of the learning process, the maturing process.”
It’s a process Dooley has been through before at ECU.
His first tour of duty with the Pirates was from 1995-99, when he inherited a program already established by his predecessor, Eddie Payne, and left with the highest winning percentage in the school’s Division I history.
He returned in 2018 following a successful run at Florida Gulf Coast that included two NCAA Tournament appearances to a situation in desperate need of a reset after four straight losing seasons.
Although the job is still far from complete, Dooley’s Pirates have at least begun to show some tangible signs of progress in year three of the process.
In a recent game against UNC Wilmington, they saw a 15-point halftime lead evaporate into a 10-point deficit thanks to a 30-8 Seahawks run to open the second half. But instead of falling apart as previous ECU teams might, this one battled back to win in overtime.
Three nights later, it pulled out another victory by scoring the game’s final seven points to rally from behind to beat North Florida.
“We’re onto something,” star junior forward Jayden Gardner said. “We have a lot of things to get better at, a lot of things to keep learning, but it’s great that we’re getting better and winning at the same time. And we’re winning in different ways each time.”
Gardner, a 6-foot-7, 235-pound forward, has been the biggest and most important building block in the Pirates’ progression.
A foundational player who arrived at ECU shortly after Dooley was hired to replace Jeff Lebo, the junior from Wake Forest has been the team’s top scorer and rebounder in each of the past two seasons.
He leads the Pirates in both categories again this year, averaging 20.1 points and 8.0 rebounds per game and is a legitimate candidate for American Athletic Conference Player of the Year honors.
But according to Dooley, Gardner’s importance to the program can’t accurately be measured by his stats.
“The good news is that I think he’s going to continue to get better as we get better pieces around him,” Dooley said. “The other thing is that he’s an unbelievable person. He’s a character, program-type person that other guys want to be around.”
Gardner’s supporting cast is already vastly improved thanks to Dooley’s effort to recruit and, more importantly, retain better players.
Junior college transfer J.J. Miles, who is averaging 11.0 points per game in his second season at ECU, has become an athletic presence on the wing while shooting 56.3% (9 of 16) from 3-point range.
Sophomore Tristen Newton is a rapidly developing point guard averaging 8.8 points and a team-leading 5.2 assists, while fellow sophomore Brandon Suggs and senior Bitumba Baruti, who started his college career at Washington, have also made consistent contributions.
They are all part of a 10-man class that nearly turned the entire roster over in 2019. It’s a talent pool deepened by this year’s additions, led by freshman guard Noah Farrakhan and 7-foot junior college transfer Ludgy Debaut.
“I feel a lot better this year than I did at this point last year,” Dooley said. “We’re a lot more mature than we were a year ago.”
That added experience will be especially helpful now that the Pirates are about to turn the corner into conference play. Having been through it before, most of the team’s key players are better prepared to handle the upcoming challenge that will begin on Wednesday against a 4-0 SMU team.
“I’ve said since I got here that you have to get old and stay old,” Dooley said of the key to competing in the AAC, a conference that also includes perennial NCAA Tournament teams Houston, Cincinnati, Temple and Wichita State. “It’s a grown man’s league.
“Having been in the Big 12 and other places, I think the league is very underrated. It’s a multiple-bid league. You’ve got to get to the top half of the league to make sure you’re in the NCAA or NIT, and that’s what we’re focusing on.”
Although the Pirates are off to a strong start, Miles and his teammates realize that they’re still a long way from accomplishing that goal.
“We can’t get comfortable with winning,” he said. “We’ve got to figure out what our bad points are and get just better. Conference is coming up, and we know that’s going to be a harder challenge.”