Sophomore forward Jayden Gardner against Tulsa - 2019/2020

Sophomore Jayden Gardner shoots a free throw against Tulsa earlier this season.

Wednesday night will act as déjà vu for the East Carolina University (8-10, 2-3 AAC) men’s basketball team when they face Southern Methodist University (13-4, 3-2 AAC) in Dallas, Texas.

Less than two weeks ago, the Pirates took down the Mustangs is rousing fashion inside Minges Coliseum. A go-ahead three-pointer by freshman guard Tristen Newton represented the 11th triple ECU hit on the evening as they upset a then 12-2 SMU squad by a final of 71-68.

After shooting over 40% from long-range against the Mustangs on Jan. 11, the Pirates have continued to be plagued by lackluster efforts from the field. In two games since the Pirates’ statement win that evened their record at 8-8 on the season, they have shot the ball at a 31.2% clip, including 16.3% from three-point range.

“We do extra shooting three days a week so the guys are in here besides practice time,” ECU head coach Joe Dooley said. “We need to step up, we need some guys that are good shooters that haven’t shot the ball particularly well, and hopefully we’ll start getting a little bit better.”

That less than stellar shooting kept the Pirates under 60 points in each of their last two games, as they scraped together only 49 against the University of Tulsa (12-6, 4-1 AAC) on Jan. 15, a season low.

Even with some recent struggles, glimpses have shown through that suggest this team can play at a higher capacity. The victory over SMU is a perfect example, as that game capped a stretch of six wins in seven tries for the Pirates. During that run, ECU shot over 45% from the field and 33% from three-point range, scoring nearly 71 points per contest.

While all six of those wins came inside Minges, the Pirates will need to meet or exceed those numbers on Wednesday if they wish to take down SMU in Dallas.

Since the two teams last meet up, the Mustangs are 1-1 and will be freshly removed from a 68-52 win over Temple University (10-7, 2-4 AAC). That win pushed SMU’s home record to 10-1 at Moody Coliseum and continued to display the Mustangs’ blueprint to success.

Four players reached double figures for SMU, including junior guard Tyson Jolly who set new career-highs with 25 points and 14 rebounds. Aside from Jolley, who is the Mustangs’ third leading scorer with 14.6 points per game, junior forward Isiaha Mike, sophomore guard Kendric Davis and sophomore forward Feron Hunt all posted at least 10 points.

Appropriately, that quartet of players represents the top-four scorers on SMU’s roster through its first 17 games of the season. Davis, a transfer from Texas Christian University (12-5, 3-2 Big 12), pulls in an average of 16 points per game and better than seven assists per contest.

That second number ranks eighth in the nation while his 2.61 assist/turnover ratio is also top-25 in the NCAA. In the first matchup with ECU, Davis was “limited” to only six assists but made up for it with 13 points and four rebounds.

“Their athleticism, they’ve got four double figure scorers, very athletic,” Dooley said of SMU. “I think Isiaha Mike is a pro, Davis is one of the better point guards in the league. Feron Hunt is one of the better athletes, I just think they have a lot of versatility.”

While SMU is one of the best teams in the nation at sharing the basketball (16.6 assists per game), the Mustangs can also play defense at an elite level. Despite allowing 71 points to the Pirates earlier in the season, opponents usually only generate 67.3 points per game. At the same time, opponents of the Mustangs shoot only 40% from the field and are usually limited to one-and-done situations by a team that pulls in 39.6 rebounds each time out.

On the offensive side, SMU hits the glass equally hard. Tied for 50th in the nation, the Mustangs grab 12.1 offensive rebounds per game, on average. That number helps facilitate their plus-8.9 scoring margin as does their 13.1 points off turnovers per contest.

Minus some minor hiccups this season, SMU has shown sustained stretches of looking like an elite level team. Nevertheless the Pirates are one of the few teams that can boast success against the Mustangs, something that could help them due to the quick turnaround between games.

“I think the good news is we have some familiarity,” Dooley said. “A little bit more familiarity, probably a little bit shorter scouting report because we know some of the tendencies and we just worked on it. It’s a big personnel game, so we’ll really pay attention to those matchups.”

One major matchup to watch is whoever is tasked with stopping Mike. At 6-8 and 215 pounds, Mike is shooting at a 52.6% clip thus far while ranking toward the top of SMU’s roster in rebounds per game (7.2), assists and steals. A week and a half ago, Mike dropped 21 points and five rebounds on the Pirates while shooting 5-of-9 from three-point range.

In conference play, it has been the two-headed monster of Davis and Mike that has terrorized American Athletic Conference defenses. Through five AAC games each are averaging 15.2 points per game, giving them both top-five scoring numbers in the league.

While the Pirates were able to hold SMU under 40% from the field in the last matchup, that could become a tougher task in Dallas. Conversely, the last two games have proven ECU’s shooting game struggles to travel with the team on the road.

Barely over 30% from the field likely will not get the job done on Wednesday for the Pirates as the Mustangs are a perfect 10-0 when holding their opponent under 40% shooting this season.

With sophomore forward Jayden Gardner still averaging 20.7 points per game to pace the conference and freshman forward/guard Brandon Suggs putting up nearly 10 points each time out, however, the Pirates could be due for their first true road win of the season.

At any rate the task is a tall one as ESPN’s Basketball Power Index gives the Pirates a slim 6.2% chance to defeat the Mustangs on Wednesday, despite what transpired earlier in the season.

“We don’t want to get too cocky, too overboard,” Suggs said. “We get the same focus that we keep for everybody else.”

Tip-off between ECU and SMU is scheduled for Wednesday at 8 p.m.

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