Sophomore forward Jayden Gardner against SMU - 2019-2020

Sophomore Jayden Gardner attempts to make a lay-up against SMU on Saturday.

If you had East Carolina University’s (8-8, 2-1 AAC) men’s basketball team tied for third in the American Athletic Conference behind the likes of Wichita State University (15-1, 3-0 AAC) and the University of Cincinnati (10-6, 3-1 AAC) after three league games, please raise your hand.

Following a 71-68 upset of Southern Methodist University (12-3, 2-1 AAC) on Saturday, that is exactly where ECU finds itself in mid-January. For a team that started the season 2-7 with 11 newcomers to the roster, another 10-win season for head coach Joe Dooley seemed like a possibility. Since Dec. 3, however, the Pirates are 6-1 and have reeled off six consecutive home wins sandwiched around a loss to the nationally ranked Shockers in Wichita.

While neither league win has been particularly clean from start to finish for ECU, a 44-point second half fueled by a seven-of-17 effort from long-range, allowed the Pirates to flip the script on SMU last week.

“Wanting to win, thinking you can win and then winning are all different stages,” Dooley said. “I think we’re still trying to figure out how to win. You have to rattle their cages every once and a while because I do think sometimes they go away from what got them going.”

A quality win over a good opponent, Saturday’s win evened the Pirates’ record at eight and matched last season’s ledger through 16 games. Despite starting the 2018-2019 campaign 8-8, last year’s version of the Pirates won just two additional games and finished the season 10-21.

On the back of a continued standout performance from sophomore forward Jayden Gardner, this Pirate team will look to get over the 10-win hump that has flummoxed them for two seasons.

That begins with another tough league matchup on Wednesday against the University of Tulsa (10-6, 2-1 AAC).

Tulsa, while 1-4 on the road, took down the University of Houston (12-4, 2-1 AAC) on Saturday by a score of 63-61 and handed the Cougars their fourth loss of the season in the process. Tulsa’s leading scorer, junior guard Brandon Rachal, racked up 18 points in the victory while junior guard Darien Jackson paced the scoring with 19 points.

On the season, that guard duo has been a good one for the Golden Hurricane. Scoring 14.6 points per game, Rachal leads Tulsa’s roster in four major offensive categories while Jackson finds himself fourth on the team scoring nine points per contest.

“Brandon Rachal is a really good player,” Dooley said. “They’ve got some upperclassmen, I think seven of their top eight are juniors or seniors. They’ve been through it. They’ve played a really good non-conference schedule and had a real big win the other day against Houston, so they’ll come in very confidently.”

While Tulsa scores 70.9 points per game on average as a team, the Golden Hurricane has topped out at 104 points this season in a triple-overtime loss back in late December. In league play, however, Tulsa has failed to score more than 70 points in three games and was held to just 44 against Cincinnati.

Without a marque offensive victory to hang their hats on, Rachal and redshirt junior forward Jeriah Horne have combined to score in double figures 24 times during the campaign. Horne, at 6-7, ranks just behind Rachal in points scored (11.3 per game) and rebounds (4.7 per game) and possesses a lethal stroke from long-range.

Over his last five games, all starts, Horne shot 37.5% (12-of-32) from three-point range, setting a season-high with a 5-of-10 effort against Colorado State University (11-7, 2-3 MW) on Dec. 21.

As a team, Tulsa ranks in the bottom half of the nation in three-point field goal percentage at 32.2%. Inside the arch, that number increases to 44.9%, placing the Golden Hurricane at 124th in the NCAA.

While it is unlikely that Tulsa will blow anyone away with its offensive numbers, the Golden Hurricane are enjoying a solid season on the defensive end. Entering Wednesday, Tulsa will be ranked inside the top-60 nationally with 8.2 steals per game. Rachal, who paces the program with 34 steals through 16 games, leads that charge and is tied for 39th in the country with 2.13 thefts per contest.

Despite that hefty steal total, the Golden Hurricane force just over 14.6 turnovers per game, a number that ranks 128th in Division I.

Coached by Frank Haith, who is in his sixth season with the Golden Hurricane, Tulsa is not afraid to mix up their starting rotations. Through 16 games, 11 different players have worked their way onto the court, with nine starting at least four games. Six players have seen action in all 16 games but none have started the full complement of contests.

In conference play, however, Haith has settled down the rotation and started the same combination for all three games. Rachal, Horne, junior guard Elijah Joiner, senior guard Lawson Korita and junior center Emmanuel Ugboh have filled every starting conference lineup for Haith thus far. From his top two scorers, Haith has received a combined 28.7 points per game in conference play, a number that makes up 48.6% of the 59 total points Tulsa averages as a team in AAC play.

Ahead of Wednesday’s matchup, ESPN’s Basketball Power Index gives Tulsa a 55.5% chance of defeating the Pirates in Minges Coliseum. While the result for this upcoming game remains unknown, Tulsa has seemingly had ECU’s number.

In the all-time series Tulsa holds a 20-3 advantage over ECU, including a current five-game win streak over the Pirates that they will bring to Greenville, North Carolina on Wednesday. ECU’s last win over Tulsa, a 69-66 victory in Minges, came nearly two calendar years ago on Jan. 25, 2017.

Nevertheless the history between these two teams, Dooley has the Pirates playing well at the right time. Six different players are averaging at least 8.3 points per game, including Gardner who is 13th in the nation with 21.3 per contest.

After dropping 11 triples on SMU, the Pirates have finally broken the 30% threshold from long-range as junior guard Tyrie Jackson leads the way with a 35.2% (19-of-54) effort.

While the Pirates do not score many points themselves, they are at their best when opponents find it hard to shoot. Following Saturday’s effort against the Mustangs, ECU is now 8-0 when holding opponents under 40% shooting from the field.

Seemingly necessary for a Pirate victory, ECU must once again bring its best on the defensive end of the court if it wishes to conclude this three-game homestand with a perfect 3-0 record.

“I think this is a team that can grow on people,” Dooley said. “They’re young, they really don’t know what they’re doing yet. I think they try pretty hard. I think that’s what our fans want to see, give a good solid effort and continue to get better. I think they (the fans) see some young guys that we can grow this program with.”

Tip-off between the Pirates and Golden Hurricane is scheduled for Wednesday at 7 p.m. inside Minges Coliseum.

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