Jayden Gardner

Sophomore forward Jayden Gardner.

For the East Carolina University men’s basketball team, the 2019-2020 season will be an opportunity to start fresh after a tough 2018-2019 campaign.

“It is a more spirited group. There’s not a remembrance of how last year was for the most part, you’ve only got two guys back,” head coach Joe Dooley said. “I think the rest of these guys are from winning programs, have been around winning. You can never take it for granted, it’s not as easy as people think.”

From last year’s 10-21 season, only two returning lettermen will grace the roster when the Pirates tip-off against the Virginia Military Institute on Tuesday. Redshirt senior forward Seth LeDay and sophomore forward Jayden Gardner will be joined by 11 newcomers on scholarship on a roster that includes seven junior college transfers and four true freshmen.

While not much experience will be returning to the roster this season, it’s safe to say the Pirates are getting back one of their best players from last year.

With 16.3 points and 8.5 rebounds per game one season ago, Gardner was selected to The American All-Freshman Team by unanimous decision. From rookie standout to one of the most experienced Pirates on the roster, Gardner will be tasked with showing the newcomers how to play ECU basketball this season.

“You’re putting a lot of pressure on a sophomore to be a leader which he can do because he essentially was the leader last year,” Dooley said. “I think he’s still in a learning phase. His game has jumped up like it should between a freshman and sophomore year. You also don’t want to put too many expectations on him that you have to do everything or else we can’t win. I think he’s figuring that out that the more he helps facilitate for his teammates, the better we can be.”

While there will be a delicate balance between too much and too little pressure on Gardner, additional size on the Pirates’ roster will help that situation.

After not featuring a player even close to seven-feet in 2018-2019, the Pirates welcomed three seven-footers in this recruiting class. Junior center Ludgy Debaut, junior center/forward Edra Luster and freshman center/forward Charles Coleman help make-up the largest group of scholarship players in program history.

“Last year, even playing zone, people were able to throw over the top of us,” Dooley said. “I’ve been places where we’ve trapped the post when you’re big in order to try to turn people over. But last year, we were so small, even when we trapped it, people threw out of it.”

Averaging 78.69 inches, the 13 scholarship players on Dooley’s roster will go a long in rectifying an issue that often plagued the Pirates last year.

Void of size and largely without the ability to shoot (28.4% three-point field goal percentage in ‘18-’19), the Pirates finished 11th out of 12 teams in the Amercian Athletic Conference. Their 67.4 points per game and 0.9 assist to turnover margin both ranked 11th in the AAC while the Pirates’ 12.3 assists per contest was dead last in the league.

Keeping that in mind, ECU will return just 39.6% of its total points from last season, 1.2% of its made three-point field goals and only 26.6% of its minutes played. That’s because at the conclusion of last season, seven underclassmen entered the transfer portal, leaving Dooley the task of rebuilding his roster.

“I think we’ve made a lot of progress,” Dooley said. “I do think the guys will be excited to get out there and play. I think we’ve got a little different team this year.”

Ranked as the 10th-best recruiting class by The Hoop Scoop, ECU’s crop of new players will look to post the first winning season for the Pirates since the 2012-2013 campaign.

With so much of his roster brand new, chemistry between players will be an early season story-line. Aside from Gardner and LeDay, none of the players have experience playing with each other, heaping more importance on preseason practices and scrimmages.

“I think the big thing is the offensive chemistry. I think the defense is always usually a little bit ahead of the offense because it’s a little simpler,” Dooley said. “It’s not as much feel as it is technique and positioning whereas offense it’s: where does a guy like the ball? How do we get him there? What happens if A, B or C happens?”

One of the players tasked with distributing the ball will be sophomore guard Tremont Robinson-White. A transfer from Garden City Community College, Robinson-White has been sidelined with an injury during the preseason and will miss the Pirates’ season opener, according to Dooley.

LeDay, who himself is recovering from an ACL injury, should be full-go while other nagging injuries have kept portions of the roster off the practice court.

Right out of the gate, the Pirates and their new roster will be tested with six of their first eight games away from Minges Coliseum. That challenge, along with playing good competition in the United States Naval Academy and Appalachian State University, will quickly give Dooley and his staff a feel of how his team will play this season.

“You got a lot of guys trying to find their way, trying to pave their way and everyone getting accumulated together,” Gardner said. “We’re all getting used to playing with each other, with a new team so it’s been a really exciting challenge.”

That exciting challenge, which has taken place over the course of the preseason, will ramp up a notch as the regular season rolls around. Just how much chemistry the Pirates have created will be tested, beginning with a matchup against VMI for their home opener on Tuesday night at 7 in Minges Coliseum.

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