East Carolina Basketball: What to expect from Pirates in 2020-21?

After a lack of historical consistent success, East Carolina Basketball will enter the 2020-21 season with a newfound optimism and a drive to make a jump in the highly competitive AAC.

Joe Dooley and East Carolina Basketball will have their work cut out for them if they hope to make a move in the American Athletic Conference, but they have the pieces needed for such a move.

The AAC is one of the more troublesome high-major conferences in Division I basketball, particularly in the last few years. There have not been any major contenders for a national championship – arguably the best opportunity came from the 2018-19 Houston squad that finished 33-4 and lost to Kentucky in the Sweet Sixteen – but no one really set the college basketball world on fire this past season.

There were obviously exceptionally talented and scary teams in the AAC.  Cincinnati, Houston, Tulsa, Wichita State, and Memphis all won 20 games each, UConn and SMU were just a win behind at 19 apiece, and Houston was ranked 22nd nationally when the season was canceled.  Six of these teams – UConn being the outlier – had all received votes for the AP national poll at some point in the year.

The parity showcased in the upper half of the league trickles down into the bottom half, as well.  UCF, USF, Temple, East Carolina, and Tulane all finished with losing records in conference play, with UCF being the only one of the six to finish with a winning overall record.  Tulane, in Ron Hunter’s first year at the helm, finished with the worst record in the conference.  However, it was East Carolina that finished with the worst overall record.

East Carolina Basketball’s recent struggles

This is not anything new or a stunning revelation for college basketball fans.  East Carolina has been trapped in a cycle of mediocrity since joining the AAC in 2014.  Before joining, they had enjoyed a form of postseason success with the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament under Jeff Lebo, qualifying for it in 2011, 2013, and 2014, and winning the championship in 2013.

A shift from Conference USA to the American has undone any optimist that Pirates fans may have had for their team.  To put this into perspective, Jeff Lebo’s first four years at ECU, when the Pirates were still in C-USA, produced a respectable 73-61 overall record.  After the subsequent jump to the American, Lebo’s squads went 43-60 before he ultimately resigned just weeks into the 2017-18 season.

It has been a challenge for Joe Dooley to pick up the pieces and rebuild a program that he once brought success to in the late 1990s.  Dooley experienced his first head coaching gig in 1995 after being promoted from assistant to head coach at East Carolina before taking assistant jobs at New Mexico, Wyoming, and Kansas – the last of which he helped Bill Self and the Jayhawks claim the 2008 national title.

Dooley got his second head coaching stint at Florida Gulf Coast, taking over after Andy Enfield became a hot commodity and bolted for USC thanks to the 2013 Dunk City run.  In all five years with the Eagles, Dooley led FGCU to postseason action, including back-to-back NCAA tournament berths in 2016 and 2017, the former of which included a First Four obliteration of Farleigh Dickinson.

After his stellar 114-58 tenure at FGCU, Dooley accepted the opportunity for a second attempt at success at East Carolina.  Suffice to say, it has not been easy in his first two years – 10-21 and 11-20 records in 2018-19 and 2019-20 – paired with 11th-place finishes in the American have not given ECU fans much reason for optimism.

None of this is meant to knock the Pirates or Joe Dooley.  Dooley has routinely been named one of the top assistants and recruiters in college basketball this century, he has a national title under his belt, and he has proven he can win at the head coaching level.  What must be said, however, is that this is Dooley’s greatest challenge yet.

When I said that East Carolina has been trapped in mediocrity since joining the AAC, that is partly true.  What I have neglected to mention is that this has always been true – in East Carolina’s 54 seasons as an NCAA Division I member, dating back to 1965-66, the program has enjoyed a winning record (over .500, specifically) just 14 total times.  This lack of success is not just the result of the transition to the AAC, nor does it suggest that Dooley’s woeful first two seasons in this second stint should necessarily be placed on him.

For what it is worth, there are a few hopeful things relating to East Carolina, and having Dooley at the helm reinforces that confidence.  The Pirates return Jayden Gardner, the leading scorer in the American at 19.7 points per game, and one of just three players in conference history to finish top five in scoring and rebounding the same season.  Most importantly, Gardner is only a junior.

The Pirates also showed some flashes of success this past season, including a stretch spanning December and January where they won six of seven games – two of which included close victories over USF and SMU.  Contrarily, ECU proceeded to drop 12 of their last 15 games of the regular season.  Some of those losses, however, were single-digit affairs against some of the top competition in the American, including Cincinnati, Memphis, and Wichita State.

To add insult to injury, East Carolina also had some head-scratching non-conference losses, ranging from Kansas City to Coppin State.  The Pirates might have had an opportunity for a little postseason success, as they were pit against a Memphis squad in the American Athletic Conference tournament that they had just lost to by four points a month prior, but COVID-19 halted any chance.

Having one of college basketball’s top recruiters as head coach – someone who has brought in the American’s leading scorer – should give East Carolina fans some hope, and all eyes will be on the incoming class of four recruits to potentially make an impact.  Three freshmen – Derrick Quansah, Noah Farrakhan, and Brenden Kelly – and David Kasanganay, a transfer from Navy, will all have the opportunity to make a splash for a squad that had just two double-digit scorers.

Undoubtedly, it is difficult for any college basketball fan – as most do already – to take East Carolina seriously, and I think most considered their (among other schools) jump to the American a mistake.  Likewise, the lack of consistent historical success has turned East Carolina into a bit of a laughingstock in the college basketball world.

That being said, the Pirates now check a lot of boxes that could help right the ship.  Having both one of the best assistants and recruiters in the nation who has already had success previously at ECU and the conference’s leading scorer (and someone who has already made conference history in just two years) already gives East Carolina an edge that most programs do not have.

Belonging to a conference as top-heavy as the American also makes things a bit difficult, but it also allows for more parity.  Again, five teams won over 20 games each, and arguably four of them were locks in the NCAA tournament.  East Carolina nearly beat three of them.  Tulane, the squad that owned the American’s worst conference recorded, beat Cincinnati, the league’s top team.

Having more winning and dominant teams does not provide the same opportunity as conferences that I have mentioned in previous articles, like the Atlantic Sun and America East, but it does allow for more of a competitive cluster that gives the concept of a team being beatable on “any given day” even more credit.  To put this into greater perspective: the American Athletic Conference is one of just seven Div. I conferences where every team maintains double-digit wins.

This presents opportunities for those teams with losing records – in this case, USF, Temple, East Carolina, and Tulane – to build on some form of success, garner confidence, and better prepare themselves for the competition seen in their conference.

All of this is written without even mentioning Tristen Newton, an up-and-rising star for the Pirates.  My colleague Josh Whitlow profiled him in an article published last week, and it has everything you need to know about Newton and his aspirations for both East Carolina and himself.

With Dooley now having the opportunity to bring in multiple recruiting classes and allowing Gardner to grow and flourish, the East Carolina Pirates are now capable of making their first leap into the upper echelon of the American Athletic Conference.

It may not happen immediately, and East Carolina fans have every reason to be frustrated given the consistent lack of success, but there is also reason to maintain positivity and optimism heading into the future.