NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. – When Kevin Keatts arrived in Wilmington, he was taking over a good program that had fallen on hard times. UNCW had won four CAA titles and at one time was among the powers in the conference, but those might have seemed like a lifetime ago to some in the fan base.
Now, it’s the hard times that seem like a long time ago, with the Seahawks heading back to the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row.
Keatts has done it quickly and without any real failures along the way. He’s basically 3-for-3 in successful seasons, avoiding the growing pains that normally accompany these rebuilds. In Monday night’s championship game, he told his players about staying the course, a course that has been steady and full of winning.
Usually, a coach tries to establish the culture and get their style of play in place in their first year in a rebuilding situation. Keatts did that and more, as the Seahawks were one of four teams tied for the regular season title in the CAA. He got a team full of veterans to play better than they had played to that point in their careers, and added in a couple of newcomers as well.
Year two is usually more challenging with the way personnel tends to go, but the Seahawks won the regular season title and this time broke through in Baltimore to win the conference tournament. Then they gave Duke all they could handle in the first round of the NCAA Tournament before they succumbed to the Blue Devils.
This year, the Seahawks were favored in the CAA from the outset, and had a well-balanced team. They played well together, to the point where with all their talent, no individual had numbers that were out of this world. They had four players who made the three All-CAA teams, and the only award winner was sophomore Devontae Cacok winning Defensive Player of the Year. Two players were in the top ten in the conference in assists and three in the top 15 in that category; Cacok leads the nation in field goal percentage, making nearly 80 percent of his shots, and that’s the only statistic that stands out on the page.
Most of all, being picked to win the conference meant they had a target on their back right from the outset. It meant other teams would want to knock them off just a little more than usual.
“It makes this run special, ” Keatts said of winning while picked to win.
It was a contrast to being picked ninth two years ago and sixth last year.
“Last year, I thought that we were kind of the underdog all year, so we had a chip on our shoulder,” said senior guard Denzel Ingram. “This year, I think we got everybody’s best shot, and we got everybody’s best game. We still found a way to get it done, and that’s what’s most important. ”
College of Charleston certainly wanted to knock them off for every possible reason. They finished right behind the Seahawks in the regular season, splitting the two meetings with the road team winning both games. The Cougars had their own difficult time a couple of years ago, before Earl Grant took over, but those days are well in their past. They were close to home, meaning the home fans had a chance to see them go for the championship. And an NCAA Tournament bid was on the line.
The Cougars stayed right with the Seahawks in the first half, then UNCW pulled away later in the game for the win. They stayed the course and saw it pay off, just as Keatts told them. They are off to another NCAA Tournament.
And for the program and its fans in Wilmington, the good times are very much in the present once more.