UNCW faces Brownell with reinvigorated program under Keatts

Eleven years removed from his abrupt departure, the former Seahawks coach reflects on his time in Wilmington, state of program under Keatts

Jeff Blake—X02835
Clemson coach Brad Brownell brings his team to the Smith Center on Tuesday looking to break a 58-game losing streak to UNC in Chapel Hill (Jeff Blake/USAToday Sports)

Nineteen years ago, UNCW ventured down to Littlejohn Coliseum to face Clemson in a 67-50 loss before winning a second straight CAA title. A little known assistant coach named Brad Brownell was on the sidelines as an assistant under Jerry Wainwright.On Wednesday, the Seahawks will make their first trip back to Littlejohn in nearly two decades. Only this time around, Brownell is on the Clemson side as the head coach now 10 years removed from being the head of the UNCW program.Wilmington was Brownell’s home for 12 years and his first shot as an assistant and head coaching position at the Division I level. Coaching against the Seahawks in orange won’t be easy for the seventh-year Clemson coach.”That was a great time in my life,” Brownell said. “I won’t ever forget the opportunity UNCW gave me. … Leaving a program that you helped build wasn’t easy. I still take great pride in what we did there and the players we coached. Wednesday will be special.”Brownell did more than just building a program with Wainwright, he also built his family during his time at UNCW. Brownell and his wife, Paula, have two daughters. Both Abby (19) and Kate (17) were born in Wilmington and spent the first few years of their lives on the coast.Despite starting his career with Evansville and Indianapolis at the Division II level, Brownell said he learned how to truly recruit and run a program when he arrived in Wilmington. While he’s more than a decade removed from his days with UNCW, Brownell still keeps tabs on the team.”I’m really glad to see that Coach [Kevin] Keatts is doing such an outstanding job,” he said. “He’s got the program back in the national spotlight like it should be. Now we have a challenge ahead of us because of what he’s built from the ground up.”UNCW isn’t just a normal mid-major school for Brownell, and Keatts understands that. After his time as an assistant coach at Louisville, he knows being one of the top mid-major teams in the country means his Seahawks won’t be taken lightly by the Tigers.”I don’t think anyone in the country takes another team for granted these days,” Keatts said. “There’s too much parity in college basketball to overlook any opponent. Brad knows about us. I’m sure he’s watched plenty of tape on us. Our record will get his attention.”Before he left, Brownell set a school record with a 25-8 record in 2005-06, winning his second CAA Tournament title. But Brownell nor Wainwright ever accomplished what Keatts has already done this season with 11 wins before conference play starts.He’s done so with a complete team that includes four players averaging double-digit points per game, paced by C.J. Bryce (18.1 ppg) and Chris Flemmings (17.6). Devontae Cacok dominates inside with 9.3 rebounds per game while Denzel Ingram leads the charge with 5.7 assists per contest.It hasn’t been an easy road for UNCW since Brownell’s departure, but Keatts is proud of where he currently has the Seahawks.”When I took this job, I wanted to build a program,” Keatts explained. “My vision was to score from every position and have people understand their roles. We’re getting there. I think our offense is clicking at a high level right now. You’re not going to be perfect in every area, but as we get better defensively, we have a chance to be very good.”Coming off a convincing win over in-state rival ECU, the Hawks are 11-1 with an eight-game winning streak. During that span, UNCW downed three teams on the road, including St. Bonaventure and Campbell, two teams with winning records.But Wednesday is different. Keatts knows his team achieved something special last year, but the loss to Duke ruined any chance of a run in March. Going against a former coach currently carrying a 9-2 record in a huge stadium will do more than just prepare UNCW for January.Both teams have a shot to go dancing in March. Regardless of the history or current records, getting a shot at proving who his team truly is makes the trip to Clemson worth it.”This is obviously a measuring stick for us to see where we’re at before conference play,” Keatts said. “Getting a shot to play against a Power Five team in a stadium like Littlejohn does more for our guys than any other game we’ve played to this point. I want our program to compete with anyone on any given night. This will be another tough test to prove we can do just that.”