The second year of Joe Dooley’s second stint helming ECU’s men’s basketball team started with a convincing win over VMI in the season opener, but concluded with an injury-filled, frustrating 11-20 season.

Putting on the court one of the youngest rosters in Division I basketball last season, Dooley and his coaching staff watched transfers Ludgy Debaut and Tyrie Jackson miss time with injuries, while upperclassmen Seth LeDay left the program after just six games.

That opened the door for some younger players like Tristen Newton, Brandon Suggs and Charles Coleman to step up and fill big minutes for the Pirates.

“I think the big thing is anytime guys are freshmen and they get a lot of playing time, I think that really helps them,” Associate Head Coach Steve Roccaforte told Patrick Johnson on 94.3 The Game on Monday. “Instead of talking about things, they’ve experienced them. Once you’ve experienced going through the league and through the competition, you have a better understanding of what you need to be able to do.”

Instead of redshirting some of his youth, Dooley was forced to play Newton and Suggs in all 31 games last season, with that duo making a combined 41 starts. Coleman, who was one of three seven-footers brought in by Dooley during the last off-season, appeared in 30 games, starting 20 of them.

As the season wore on, the combination of Newton, Suggs, Coleman, Jayden Gardner and Tremont Robinson-White quickly became Dooley’s go-to lineup. Of those players, only Gardner had donned the purple and gold before last season, and even he was only a sophomore.

Nevertheless, Gardner, Newton and Suggs finished the 2019-2020 season 1-2-3 in scoring, with Tristen being the only other Pirate besides Jayden to notch a double-digit scoring average for the season.

“I think once you get a lot of playing time as a freshman, all that does is help you…Once you compete within the league and you understand what you have to do to be successful, then that really helps you in your personal improvement,” Roccaforte said.

With a young lineup came mistakes that caused ECU to leave points on the board at some critical junctures. At times, it seemed like unless Gardner was scoring the Pirates could not find a basket, something that greatly hindered scoring output for stretches of the season.

While ECU only improved its 2018-2019 record by one win last year, the feeling was the Pirates left a handful of wins on the table. Eight times they lost a game by six or less points, including a New Year’s Day match-up against Wichita State in Kansas.

Other close losses included an early-season tilt with Navy, and important conference contests with UCF, Cincinnati, Memphis and USF. Twice, ECU pushed conference foes to overtime, only to lose by one or two possessions.

“I think we were right there last year,” Roccaforte said. “I thought the most important thing for us, especially starting out, was to try to stay injury-free and that didn’t happen. It happens to everybody across the country. In the stage that we were in, we needed to have everybody healthy. We played a lot of close games that we didn’t win. I think it was eight games by six (points) or less.”

If the Pirates would have been able to flip all those close games, they would have improved their record to 19-12 and 10-8 in the American Athletic Conference. In that scenario, ECU would have vaulted to the middle of the pack in AAC and owned the same overall record as a team like UConn.

As we all know, however, we can not live in a world of “what-ifs,” but the Pirates can use their experience losing close games to figure out how to win them in the future.

“With that experience of being in those games, you have to build on that especially going into next year,” Roccaforte said. “We’ve been in the close games. Now what are the plays that we need to make on both ends of the floor to be able to win those games and how do we close those games out?”

The difference between making and not making those plays will likely once again be the deciding factor in how successful this coaching staff is in its third season directing the Pirates. A team that was lacking in experience last year now has a strong core of upperclassmen that knows what it takes to win a basketball game in the AAC, now they just got to go play.

Listen to Patrick Johnson’s full interview with Steve Roccaforte that first aired on 94.3 The Game on Monday below:

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