The college basketball world might not have known quite what to expect from Kevin Keatts when he got the head coaching job at UNC Wilmington in 2014. The Seahawks, coming off seven straight losing seasons, were getting a man who had never been a head coach at the Division I level and had limited experience as a top-level assistant.
One important person knew exactly what kind of coach UNCW had.
The relationship between Keatts and point guard Craig Ponder played a huge role in what became one of the quickest and most impressive college basketball turnarounds in recent memory.
Between a brief stint as an assistant at Marshall and three years under Rick Pitino at Louisville, Keatts served as the head coach of the postgraduate program at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Virginia. There he coached Ponder and helped him land a scholarship at UNCW.
By the time they reunited in Wilmington, Ponder was the Seahawks’ veteran leader and ready to convince his teammates the new coach’s style and personality could help them reach their goals.
Ponder’s endorsement, combined with Keatts’ history of helping players get to the college and pro level and the NCAA championship ring he won at Louisville, led to the Seahawks immediately accepting what the new coaching staff was teaching.
“You kind of have a choice when you come in,” Keatts said.
“You can either put your system in or try to do what the players already know. I decided to put my system in and honestly we had seniors who had not won and they really bought in to pressing everybody and running a fast break. With each game we won you could see their confidence grow.”
Keatts’ pressure defense and run-and-gun offense immediately turned UNCW from Colonial Athletic Association bottom-feeder to conference champion. Last season, the Seahawks notched back-to-back CAA regular season titles and won the league tournament to go to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a decade.
Now, with Ponder the only key loss from last season, the Seahawks are once again CAA favorites and likely one of the best mid-major teams in the nation. Guards Chris Flemmings and Denzel Ingram are strong candidates to earn first-team All-CAA honors while freshman Jaylen Fornes could step in to help replace Ponder.
Fornes, a 6-3 point guard out of Raleigh, was a three-star recruit who signed with UNCW despite offers from Kansas State, Central Florida and others. With their fun style and breakthrough NCAA Tournament appearance, recruiting has only gotten easier for the Seahawks.
However, Keatts knows he’s in a position where nothing can be taken for granted. The Colonial, hurt by the loss of VCU and George Mason during conference realignment, has regrouped and should be extremely competitive this season, but the CAA remains a likely one-bid league with William & Mary, Hofstra, James Madison, Towson and College of Charleston all believing they also have what it takes to get to the NCAA Tournament in March.
“We went from ninth to first in this league when I got here,” Keatts said. “So who is to say there’s not another team that can do that. You can’t look past anyone in the CAA. If we were able to go from ninth to winning the league, other teams could make that kind of improvement as well.”
While that certainly could be true, that kind of jump is rare… which only serves as a reminder just how impressive a job Keatts has done in Wilmington.
Shane Mettlen is a veteran college sports writer. He’s on Twitter @ShaneMettlen.