East Carolina Head Coach Joe Dooley is hoping that after a year of playing together, his veteran squad will take the lessons learned from a disappointing 2019-20 campaign and forge ahead into the upcoming season.
Fourteen lettermen, including all five starters, return from last year’s squad which finished 11-20 but lost eight games by six points or less. That group accounted for more than 97 percent of the Pirates’ scoring, 96 percent of their rebounds and 96 percent of the minutes played.
“For the first time we’ve got some continuity,” Dooley said. “I think the guys will be more comfortable playing together and they have a better understanding of what we’re trying to do and how we’re trying to do it. We’ve also had a big jump in maturity.
“I’m not sure whether it was because of Covid, time at home or sitting and evaluating all the things we talked about, but our guys have matured. The chemistry is much better.”
Dooley, undoubtedly, will count on the Pirates staying much healthier than they were much of last season when 60 individual games were lost due to injury.
“We’ve had our bumps and bruises in preseason,” he said. “We’ve had some guys that were out for a few days, but to date nothing significant; just some minor stuff and being cautious with some guys as we get back into the swing of things.
“We’re just trying to get them in good enough shape that we can do some things, but also being cautious about their health and not get anyone injured as we try to get their legs back.”
Dooley likes to play an up-tempo brand of basketball and hopes to speed up the pace of the games this season.
“We’d like to play faster,” Dooley explained. “We’d like to play to Tremont, Tristen and Noah’s abilities by playing faster and it might take the pressure off some of our offense. That doesn’t always mean shoot it faster, but that does mean trying to play with more of a pace.”
The responsibility of quickly moving the ball into the offensive zone will fall on the shoulders of junior Tremont Robinson-White, sophomore Tristen Newton and freshman Noah Farrakhan. Robinson-White started 23 games at point guard with Newton making eight of his 19 starts at the one. Robinson-White averaged 7.5 points and 2.4 assists per game after returning from injury which cost him the first seven games of the season. He showed flashes of his potential with 21 points on the road against Temple.
Newton was the Pirates’ second-leading scorer last year at 11.0 points per game and handed out an ECU freshman record 114 assists. He also demonstrated an ability in late game situations. His second half heroics were instrumental in wins over SMU, South Florida and Temple. Newton, who has a high basketball IQ and a scorer’s mentality, can play the two guard as well.
Another performer who saw plenty of action last season was J.J. Miles. Miles, who started 13 games last year, including the final eight, averaged more points per game and shot a higher percentage from 3 in American Athletic Conference play than he did overall.
Brandon Suggs had a productive freshman season in 2020 and finished the year as the team’s No. 3 scorer (8.3 ppg). His 22 starts were second most among the 11 newcomers on the team, while his 15 double figure scoring games ranked tied for second on the team.
Dooley will also look to utilize guard Tyrie Jackson, who was limited to just 23 games last season due to injury. The coaching staff is hopeful that his energy and enthusiasm will help him realize his potential that made him an all-state player in high school and an all-league player in junior college. Miles James, who averaged 8.2 minutes in 23 games played as a sophomore, gives the Pirates good size on the wing with the ability to knock down shots outside the arc.
With so many returnees, Dooley only had two scholarships to award with one of those going to Farrakhan in the spring signing period. He spent his senior season at The Patrick School (N.J.) after helping IMG Academy (Fla.) take home the title at the 2019 Geico Nationals.
Senior walk-ons Ian Jones and Evan Umstead provide ECU with added depth and are regarded by Dooley as two of the Pirates’ energy guys. The Pirates also added two additional walk-ons to the roster in Navy transfer David Kasanganay and freshman Brenden Kelly.
The Pirate coaching staff believes that their frontcourt group is ready to take the next step in 2020-21 after a solid preseason led by all-league performer Jayden Gardner.
In Gardner, ECU has perhaps The American’s most versatile big man. He led the league in scoring (19.7 ppg) last year and finished third in rebounding (9.2 rpg) en route to earning all-conference second team honors. He has the ability to play a small five if necessary, but is best suited for power forward where he can take advantage of his strength, size and knack for scoring. With his improving ability to shoot from outside, Gardner may emerge as a stretch-four as well.
A preseason Player-of-the-Year candidate, Gardner surpassed the 1,000-point and 500-rebound career plateaus during the 2019-20 campaign while producing three of The American’s top-12 scoring performances. He finished second in the conference in offensive rebounds (2.9 orpg) and double-doubles (13) in addition to ranking fourth in field goal percentage (.521) and minutes played (34.5 mpg).
“Jayden can do a multitude of things,” Dooley said. “He’s starting to get an understanding of what’s necessary for him to get even better. His motor is always running, he’s got a good attitude, he’s always trying to get better, and always trying to improve to help the team.”
Bitumba Baruti is looking to put a disappointing 2019-20 season behind him and emerge this season as the player that arrived with lofty expectations from Chipola College. He played in all 31 games and averaged 4.4 points, 3.7 rebounds and 21.6 minutes per game.
“He was extremely disappointed with the season he had last year and has worked hard to get better,” Dooley explained. “He’s playing with more confidence and hopefully he’ll be able to step up for us this season.”
Charles Coleman and Ludgy Debaut give the Pirates a pair of towers in the middle. Coleman, who spent most of his high school career playing on the perimeter, is expected to make a jump after going through the rigors of learning to play in the post last season. ECU is also optimistic about the healthy return of Debaut, who started the first three games before going down with a foot injury.
The Pirates are expected to redshirt senior Edra Luster, who was going to be redshirted last season before Debaut suffered a season-ending injury, as well as freshman Derrick Quansah.
“Fifi is raw, energetic and bouncy”, Dooley said. “From a shear physical standpoint, he’s got a lot to offer, but he’s got to continue to learn how to play. I think sitting out and practicing every day will go a long way towards his development.”
Junior walk-on Samson Strickland played in 10 games last season and gives the Pirates additional depth along the baseline with the ability to play the center spot in a small lineup.