The East Carolina University men’s basketball team came quite a ways during head coach Joe Dooley’s first season back in Greenville, even if it’s hard to see from the outside looking in.
ECU’s season ended with a 73-57 loss to Wichita State in the AAC tournament on Thursday night. The Pirates ended the season on a five-game losing streak and finished with a 10-21 record after going 10-20 a year ago, losing six straight to end that season.
The Pirates started out by going 7-5 in non-conference play. There were tough losses, like being beaten at the buzzer 73-72 by James Madison, or losing 55-52 to High Point and not getting a good look for the tie at the end.
“I look at (the progress this season) a bunch of different ways,” Dooley said after the loss against UConn. “I’m a statistical type of person so when I looked at KenPom before the season and, ya know, stats don’t lie. We didn’t have a lot of returning points and a lot of returning guys. I would say this: I think we’ve gotten better from where we were from November and December but the flip side is the teams we’re playing are a lot better. We’re playing good teams. I do think we’ve gotten better, I think the guys have gotten a little more familiarity.”
Dooley had to navigate not having reigning AAC freshman-of-the-year Shawn Williams for the first five games of the season due to suspension. Williams played good in non-conference but struggled to begin conference play, scoring in double figures just once in a six-game stretch and even having a scoreless game. Williams bounced back to finish strong, averaging 12.6 points per game for the season. That is slightly up from the 12.4 average he sported as a freshman.
The Pirates saw the breakout of another star freshman for the second season in a row. Jayden Gardner recorded 30 points and 10 rebounds against Lamar in the third game of the season. It would be just the first of three 30-point games Gardner would record during the season, culminating with his historic 35-point 20-rebound game against UCF and it’s 7’6 center Tacko Fall.
Gardner became the first freshman in ECU and AAC history with multiple 30-point games. Gardner was averaging a conference-best 19.4 points per game on Jan. 16. From there, Gardner hit a bit of a wall and didn’t score more than 19 points (OT loss to Tulsa) for the rest of the season.
Still Gardner finished with averages of 15.9 points per game and 8.3 rebounds per game and was, surprisingly, not voted as ECU’s second straight freshman-of-the-year. Gardner became ECU’s all-time leading freshman scorer by passing ECU Hall of Famer Lester Lyons, and just the third freshman in AAC history to surpass 500 points in a season.
Dooley considers Gardner “a foundational type of guy” and luckily for Pirate fans Gardner is not going anywhere.
“My commitment is 100 percent. I don’t plan on leaving. I plan on giving my all to this program and to the fans, and to the coaches, and my teammates,” Gardner said according to WITN.
Isaac Fleming needed awhile to feel out how Dooley wanted him to play on the court. 11 of the first 13 games of the season Fleming scored under double figures. Fleming then scored above double figures in 12 of the last 16, including the last seven games consecutively.
Dooley had a lack of veterans on the team. Fleming, Justice Obasohan and Addison Hill were the three seniors but only Fleming was an integral part of the rotation. The team greatly relied on Williams (sophomore) and Gardner (freshman) and had to play many other freshman throughout the season due to necessity.
Dooley had to tinker with lineups several times through the season. Gardner and Williams, with the exception for the games he missed suspended, were the only players to start every game. Other players to start games were Dimitrije Spasojevic (14), Justice Obasohan (3), Seth LeDay (12), Addison Hill (10), Tae Hardy (nine), Tyler Foster (six), Isaac Fleming (23) and K.J. Davis (10).
“It’s a privilege to start and it’s a privilege to be a Pirate. And If you’re going to take it for granted you’re not going to start,” Dooley said after the loss against High Point.
The Pirates still lacked a true 3-point threat outside of Williams. Williams took 7.5 3-point shots per game and made them at a 36 percent rate. After him, no other regular rotation player shot 30 percent or better from 3. Gardner took a fantastic 228 free throw attempts on the season, LeDay took 118 and Fleming took 91. After them, nobody got to the line for 50 attempts.
If you watched the Pirates throughout the season or just listened to the players themselves you would know the difference between this team and last season’s team. The record was similar and so was the talent level, but the difference is in the details. This team played harder and almost always left it all on the floor. Dooley held the players to a higher standard and will continue to do so going forward.
“It’s a complete 180 from where we were. I’m excited to see where it’s going to go from here. I have no doubts that within 2-3 years, it’s going to be a premier school in the conference,” Hill, a senior who played under former head coach Jeff Lebo and Dooley both, said after ECU’s senior day loss against UConn.
Dooley will get the return Shawn Williams as a junior and Jayden Gardner as a sophomore. Dooley will undoubtedly hit the recruiting trail hard to improve the talent on the roster. Perhaps year two for Dooley will be when the ECU men’s basketball program starts to turn the corner.