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Little school, big NCAA Tournament threat: UNC Wilmington Seahawks

Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire

This series looks at some of the best small-school teams that could be viable threats in the 2017 NCAA Tournament. Today, we examine the UNC Wilmington Seahawks. 

One could consider the state of North Carolina the epicenter of the sports world. The Carolina Panthers are coming off an appearance in the Super Bowl, equipped with the NFL’s reigning Most Valuable Player and looking for more.

House Bill 2, also known as HB2, has sparked major controversies, enough to lead the NBA to pull the 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte — home of the Hornets and the state’s largest city — and move it to New Orleans.

The state also possesses some of the best college basketball teams in the nation. North Carolina, coming off its epic encounter with Villanova in the national championship game, is expected challenge for a title yet again this season. The Duke Blue Devils are — for many — the odds-on favorite to cut down the nets and win the 2017 national championship.

Those teams and issues have made the state of North Carolina a magnet for front-page headlines, but tucked away in the southern corner of the state lies a hidden gem of college basketball. A state known for Tobacco Road and the Tar Heel-Blue Devil rivalry could soon be known as a Seahawk state.

Coming off a successful run to the 2016 NCAA Tournament, UNC Wilmington got a taste of the action, taking Duke down to the wire in the first round only to fall short, 93-85. (The Blue Devils went on to the Sweet 16.) Grayson Allen’s absurd 15-of-17 free throw attempts in the game certainly helped create that result.

The loss could easily have been a win for the Seahawks, and in 2017, they’ll get their chance to not only avenge that close defeat, but expand on it even more.

Pieces to the Puzzle

Much like Monmouth in the first edition of this series, UNC Wilmington returns the majority of last season’s 25-8 team. Only two of the Seahawks’ top 10 scorers from last season are lost. Guard Craig Ponder (11.4 points, a 36.4-percent three-point shooter) and Dylan Sherwood (4.1 points, 2.3 rebounds) are those departures, and while their leadership will be missed, there’s plenty to be excited about for the 2016-’17 Seahawks.

Three other double-digit scorers from last season return, headlined by guard Chris Flemmings, a first-team All-CAA member who averaged 16.2 points and 5.8 rebounds. The Cary, N.C., native won two conference Player of the Week awards and was named the CAA Tournament MVP, totaling 19 points and six rebounds in the championship game against Hofstra.

The other headline returner for Kevin Keatts’ squad is Denzel Ingram. A transfer from UNC Charlotte, Ingram earned third-team All-CAA honors after averaging 12.7 points, 3.3 assists and shooting 37.1 percent from three.

Both Ingram and Flemmings will be seniors this season. C.J. Bryce, however, will be just a sophomore. Coming off a season in which he averaged 10.1 points and 4.2 rebounds, the 6-foot-5 product out of Charlotte provides the Seahawks with stability for this season, but also a foundation for the future.

17 March 2016: Head Coach Kevin Keatts of the UNC Wilmington Seahawks lectures his players during a time out. The Duke Blue Devils defeated the UNC Wilmington Seahawks 93-85 in the first round of the NCAA Division 1 men's basketball tournament at the Dunkin Donuts Center in Providence Rhode Island. (Photograph by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire)

UNC Wilmington head coach Kevin Keatts gathers his players for a strategy session.(Photograph by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire)

Put to the Test

Some small schools opt to play power conference opponents, but UNC Wilmington has gone the alternate route: challenging itself by going up against other expected small-school success stories. With road games at Eastern Kentucky and St. Bonaventure, a home contest against East Tennessee State, and a neutral-court affair against Middle Tennessee State, the Seahawks may not have the best non-conference schedule, but it’s good enough to test them in different ways.

They’ve also mixed in games at Clemson and at home against East Carolina, which provide higher-level conference opponents.

Diagnosing the Colonial Athletic Conference has been difficult to do. Over the last two seasons, six teams (some multiples) have claimed shares of the regular season championship (a four-way tie in 2015 and a tie between Hofstra and UNC Wilmington last season).

Though the Seahawks are the favorites, and with good reason, there’s no telling how the conference race will turn out. The CAA can turn one way or another at any point during the season. There have also been seven different conference tournament champions in the last 10 years, with the repeats being VCU and Old Dominion, who are both out of the conference now.

All on the Line

UNC Wilmington has the tools to put together a great 2016-’17 season. If all the chips fall where they should, the Seahawks could be the next small school to become a household name. In an increasingly wide-open landscape in college basketball, making a run to the Sweet 16 is something Flemmings and Company could realistically do.

They may be a small school currently overshadowed by two preseason top-10 teams and the “bathroom bill” which carries a dark cloud over the state from a national perspective, but the Seahawks have a chance to make a name for themselves. UNC Wilmington could become the next Cinderella everybody should’ve seen coming.

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