BOSTON – Talent and depth are great things to have at any time. No coach will say otherwise, and certainly not Kevin Keatts, considering the talent he has had at his disposal at times in his career. No matter how much of each you have, however, it helps to know what you are good at. For Keatts and UNCW, that can make a big difference.
“I felt like we just had to play to our strength,” said the first-year head coach after the Seahawks beat Northeastern 75-68 on Monday night. “I just thought tonight, our guys were able to get into the paint and finish.”
Keatts noted that this is not a three-point shooting team he has, although the Seahawks have shot well from there at times this season and actually make over 37 percent of their shots from behind the arc. Instead, this is a team that needs to drive to get the offense going, and they did that early and often to the tune of a 42-26 edge in points in the paint against Northeastern. They led wire to wire on a night where they went 2-3 from long range, and that leads to something else: they had a response every time Northeastern got close.
The strength of driving was reinforced by UNCW starting four guards, in part because Cedrick Williams was battling the stomach flu in the days leading up to the game. Because he’s been limited in practice and they have been wary of his condition, they brought the senior forward off the bench, where he had his moments in a more limited role. Keatts said they won’t go with this lineup every game the rest of the way, but it may be a revelation, at least for their current personnel, as well as anytime someone is playing well for them.
“We won’t use that all year long, but I felt like Addison (Spruill) was playing well and I just wanted to get him on the floor,” said Keatts.
Spruill, who is your classic power guard, made it pay off, scoring 20 points on 7-12 shooting and grabbing six rebounds, basically being their power forward for much of the night. He teamed up with freshman Jordon Talley (career-high 21 points on 8-12 shooting) and senior Freddie Jackson (18 points on 8-11 shooting) to give the Huskies fits all night long, getting in the paint anytime they wanted to. It was his seventh straight double-digit scoring game.
Perhaps the best stat of all is that they turned the ball over just ten times on the night. This is a team that plays relatively fast, and they came in averaging just under 16 turnovers per game. This stat is even more impressive than out-rebounding Northeastern 34-29, mindful that Northeastern is second in the CAA in rebounding margin at 5.7 entering Monday night.
For his part, Talley was the guy who got this team going. He was thorn in the Huskies’ side all night long, and he played through some foul trouble. He scored 11 of his points in the first half on 5-7 shooting, and seems to like big games away from home. All three of his double-digit scoring games have come away from home, and his two best have come at Louisville and at CAA favorite Northeastern.
“I think what’s helping Jordon is that he’s a guy I’ve added to a group that wasn’t a tough group, and he’s adding some toughness and some grittiness to them,” said Keatts. “As crazy as it sounds, I think they followed the freshman tonight.”
This team is certainly playing differently, and in all for the better. Ignore the bottom line at the end of this season; the win-loss record will only tell part of the story. Keatts is trying to establish what this program will be about and the identity he wants his teams to have. This team is buying in and has carved out an identity as a team that plays fast, will drive all day and defend, and there’s no lack of effort.
Last year’s UNCW team wasn’t nearly this good offensively, especially shooting from long range as the Seahawks made a little over 27 percent from deep. Last season, the Seahawks had just one double-digit scorer; right now three Seahawks average at least 11 points per game. Last season’s team wasn’t as good defensively as this team has been, and they were out-rebounded; they have an edge on the boards this season. This season’s team will turn the ball over more, which owes partly to playing at a faster pace. But in all, it’s a plus with a first-year coach.
None of this is a criticism of former coach Buzz Peterson, a good coach who might have had this team in a better place if given another year or two. Still, there’s a difference with this team. Some of it is probably the natural maturity of the players, which accounts in part for this team having some of the discipline they showed on Monday night.
Keatts will assemble some talent and depth in due time. The Seahawks already have four players signed for next year, all of whom are 6’5″ to 6’7″. Right now, he’s doing better with what he currently has, and it will help if they continue to heed his consistent message of playing to their strength.