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Stepping Up: Pirates in good shape late in non-conference play

With just three games left in East Carolina’s nonconference schedule, the Pirates have already shown big strides of improvement, particularly on the inside.

Anchored by Andre Washington’s staunch defense in the middle, ECU sits at No. 17 nationally in opponent field-goal percentage at 36.6 percent. In the Pirates 2015-16 season, the Pirates finished No. 103 nationally in field goal-percentage. Teams shot nearly 45 percent against ECU. The lone American Athletic Conference team in front of the Pirates in that category is Central Florida, who relies heavily on the post presence of 7-foot-6 center Tacko Fall.

Washington is coming off of what should be his worst outing as a Pirate. He didn’t score a point and had five turnovers against Virginia. The Cavaliers’ defense, and the team overall, will be the best ECU faces all year. The 56 percent the Cavs shot from the field should be near a season-high allowed.

Moving forward, ECU should only get stronger on the inside, both defensively and in rebounding. Washington rode the bench during his entire career at Wake Forest. He is still getting his feet under him as his collegiate career is essentially just starting as a fifth-year senior. ECU’s size continues down the line as Jabari Craig, a JUCO transfer playing his first season at the Division I level, has averaged 4.1 rebounds per game — doing so in just 12 minutes per game in 10 appearances.

Continuing, senior forward Michel Nzege made his first full return to ECU’s rotation last time out against Virginia. After playing eight minutes against Hampton and N.C. Central last week, he put in 20 minutes of work against UVA. He scored six points, as he drove to the lane well late in the game, and he pulled down a rebound in the loss. He was one of the few big men ECU had who moved the ball well inside-out from the post.

Perhaps most impressive, however, is ECU’s play without a true point guard. B.J. Tyson has taken on the role for now. Kentrell Barkley has kicked in some time, as well. Barkley and Tyson are both averaging 3.7 assists per game with 2.7 and 2.5 turnovers per, respectively. However, there may be an emerging point man that could find his way into a starting role this season.

Since missing the first three games of the season due to a team rules violation, Jeremy Sheppard has made bounds of improvement with each outing. In his first appearance against Stetson, the true freshman did not score a point and committed four fouls. In each outing since, he has set or tied a career-high in points and has overall gotten more settled in his role.

Against Virginia Tuesday night, even while being guarded by premier Atlantic Coast Conference point guard London Perrantes, Sheppard dropped 17 points and contributed two assists, though he did turn the ball over three times.

One of Sheppard’s turnovers came off of a miscommunication with redshirt freshman center Deng Riak. Riak, a highly touted recruit, still has a lot of learning to do at the Division I level. He shows flashes at times offensively and has the ability to eat up space down low defensively, but his strength moving forward will be a key to his success.

In AAC play, Riak will have to feed off of his other big men to produce on both ends of the court. Riak has a veteran big man to learn from in his first season back from a frustrating shoulder injury that cut off his true-freshman season just eight games in.

As ECU shifts its focus to conference play in the coming weeks, the AAC looks just as dangerous as it has in the past two years with strong showings from Temple, Memphis, Cincinnati, Southern Methodist and Central Florida in non-conference play.

ECU’s final exam break will end next Thursday as the College of Charleston will come to Greenville for the first of the Pirates’ last three contests before entering league play.