The East Carolina University (2-5, 0-0 AAC) men’s basketball team will attempt to climb back into the win column on Saturday when the Pirates match up against James Madison University (4-3, 0-0 CAA) in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
It will be eight days since the Pirates grabbed their last win when tip-off transpires against the Dukes. Last Friday, playing in the Islands of the Bahamas Showcase, ECU took down the University of Evansville (4-3, 0-0 MVC) by a score of 85-68.
Just 10 days prior, the Purple Aces had defeated the No. 1 ranked University of Kentucky Wildcats (6-1, 0-0 SEC), sending the college basketball world into a frenzy. Their loss to ECU generated no such frenzy, especially when the Pirates dropped back-to-back games, leaving the showcase with a lousy 1-2 record.
“We were obviously disappointed with two of the nights, with (University of Missouri) Kansas City and with Rice (University),” Pirate head coach Joe Dooley said. “Especially the way we came out flat against Kansas City. For the most part, we had a little bit of control of the Rice game in the first half and let it slip away in the second half.”
Despite each of those final two games being decided by less than 10 points, the Pirates shot a combined 33% from the floor including a lackluster 12.8% from behind the arch.
All told, ECU racked up 48 total points off free throws, finishing the Rice game over 90% in that department.
At 2-5 on the season, the Pirates are struggling to score points on a consistent basis. Even after scoring 80-plus points in two games this season, ECU is managing only 68.3 points per game while at the same time yielding better than 70 points to opposing teams.
Sophomore forward Jayden Gardner, the Pirates’ leading scorer from a season ago, has once again been tabbed to carry the weight. Having averaged nearly 20 points per game and 10 rebounds during the three-game showcase, Gardner was named to the all-tournament team.
For the season, Gardner’s numbers look very similar. Nearing a double-double per game, the sophomore is averaging 19.9 points and 9.6 rebounds every time out and has accounted for 29.1% of the Pirates’ total point total this season (139 out of 478 points).
“He’s had a solid year,” Dooley said. “He’s got some things he’s got to continue to get better at, but he will.”
Gardner, however, is not alone as some other Pirate players have stepped up through the team’s first seven games. Freshman guard/forward Brandon Suggs is second on the roster, averaging 11.4 points per game after notching double figures in six of the seven contests thus far.
While Suggs has been pressed into service, logging over 27 minutes per game through the early-going due to injuries to other players, one of those banged up Pirates made his return in the Bahamas.
After missing the first four games of the season, junior guard Tyrie Jackson dressed and played all three showcase games, turning in a career-high 22 points against Rice. In three games, Jackson is averaging 10.3 points per game, giving the Pirates a much-needed shot in the arm on the offensive end of the court.
“We thought he (Jackson) played more comfortably as the weekend went along,” Dooley said. “He played better against Rice and he’s a little sore. (Junior guard) J.J. (Miles) didn’t play the second half of the Rice game, he got a little banged up. Hopefully, at some point we get all these guys back out here together.”
Rolling into Saturday’s matchup with JMU, the Pirates will still be far less than 100% healthy. Sophomore guard Tremont Robinson-White is still tending to an ankle injury while junior center Ludgy Debaut has been lost for the season with a foot injury.
Nevertheless, ECU will be forced to contend with a hot-shooting team in the Dukes, one that averages better than 30% from behind the arch and more than nine made three-pointers per contest.
At the center of that shooting attack is a pair of junior guards in Matt Lewis and Darius Banks.
Lewis, who leads the team in scoring with 18.7 per game, is also tied atop the team leaderboard in rebounds per game (8.4) while shooting 35% from the field and nearly 31% from behind the arch.
Banks, on the other hand, has been shooting out of his mind lately, amassing a 40% clip from three-point range, a number that is higher than his 39.7% field goal percentage.
“I think last night (Tuesday) they shot 26 combined threes between the two of them (Lewis and Banks),” Dooley said. “Those guys have put up big numbers, obviously experienced backcourt. Present a lot of problems because they can score in bunches, which they have.”
Indeed, JMU has racked up 73.6 points per game as a team this season, including a 31.8 point effort from the combination of Lewis and Banks.
Aside from their ability to shoot lights out, the Dukes rank second in the NCAA (as of Nov. 27) in defensive rebounds per game with 35.9. Throw in offensive boards, and that number shoots up to 46 rebounds per contest, a number that is nearly eight boards higher than ECU’s average.
If there is one weakness for the Dukes, it would reside in their negative-4.1 turnover margin this season. Through seven games, JMU is turning the ball over 15 times per game, a category that Pirates matchup favorably in on paper.
Favored by three points, the Dukes can not match the size of the Pirates if Dooley decides to play big. At their tallest, JMU can only reach 6-8 while ECU features two healthy players who both clear seven feet.
Conversely, JMU’s ability to play small could cause matchup problems for the Pirates as the Dukes will no doubt attempt to get shooters like Lewis and Banks the basketball as much as possible.
Tip-off between the Pirates and Dukes is slated for 4 p.m. on Saturday in Virginia.