UNCW heads into CAA Tournament as top dog after record-setting season

The Seahawks are set to shock teams in March Madness, but has to win the CAA to get there

Madeline Gray—North State Journal
UNC Wilmington Head Coach Kevin Keatts yells to his team as they take on Campbell University at Gore Arena in Buies Creek on Wednesday

When discussing UNCW’s record-setting season, one has to first ask: Which one?The Seahawks have blazed a trail through the CAA yet again, winning the regular season title for a third straight season under coach Kevin Keatts. Prior to his arrival, UNCW had five total regular season titles in the previous three decades in the conference.It wasn’t just a conference-title winning season for the Hawks, though. Keatts’ squad already has 26 wins — 13 of which came at home — both records for the program. They’ve reached that mark with records in 3-pointers per game (21) and 3-pointers made in a season (296).That’s thanks, in large part, to this year’s senior class with Chris Flemmings and Denzel Ingram, who earned First Team and Second Team honors from the CAA, respectively. That was part of a record haul that saw C.J. Bryce also make First Team while Devontae Cacok made Third Team along with CAA Defensive Player of the Year — both of whom are sophomores.Coming into the season, it was no surprise that the Seahawks were ranked atop the CAA by the coaches and media. But to put together this type of season? That’s an omen to his players, Keatts noted.”When you’re ranked No. 1 by your peers during preseason, you know you’ve got a bullseye on your chest,” Keatts said. “I have to give our guys credit for staying the course and never wavering from our goal. … I’m excited because we wanted to build something special here and we’re fortunate enough to win three CAA regular season titles in a row and follow through on those goals.”UNCW clearly has the talent with four of the top 15 players in the entire conference, but it’s more about the mentality the team took into the season. After being on the other side of the ball during Keatts’ first season in Wilmington, his team knows all about what to expect from other programs.”We get everybody’s best shot every night, so we’re prepared for what’s next,” Keatts said. “I remember my first year when we were picked ninth and we were on the other side playing the underdog card. Some of our guys remember that. They don’t let anything get to their heads.”A year after making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a decade, winning the CAA Tournament is likely the only way to get back in. The Seahawks got a few votes earlier this season from the AP Poll, but isn’t likely to earn an at-large bid after losing three CAA contests in a five-game stretch.That can create a tension-packed environment for a team like UNCW, which has made it clear all season it plans to make it back to March Madness.”I don’t think we feel any pressure,” Flemmings said. “Our goal going in was to win games and get back to the conference tournament and come out on top. If we come out and play as hard as we can, we don’t have [anything] to worry about.”While the CAA isn’t viewed as a strong mid-major conference like the West Coast or Missouri Valley, it still has two teams ranked inside the top 12 in the College Insider Mid-Major Top 25.”It’s a very, very challenging conference,” Bryce said of the CAA. “Anybody can beat anybody on any given night. You just have to keep your poise and stay focused every minute you’re on the court. That’s something I look forward to, though, because I feel like we’re prepared for the moment”The other team inside that top 12 is College of Charleston, which finished at 14-4 in the CAA — one game behind UNCW. Two of the Hawks three losses in conference play came by one point. That includes a home loss to Charleston when Flemmings’ free-throw attempt fell just short.The Cougars also happen to be playing 17 minutes away from their home stadium in the CAA Tournament in North Charleston Stadium. Despite taking the loss in Trask Coliseum, the Seahawks can rest on their laurels knowing they won one the road against the Cougars if they meet in the championship.”We beat them at their place, so we aren’t worried,” Bryce said. “We kind of see ourselves as rivals at this point and we both feel we can win it all. First we have to get there. And so do they.”Surprisingly, there was nearly as much talk about last year’s NCAA Tournament during the final press conference before the Hawks headed to Charleston. UNCW was handed a loss to Duke in its lone game in the Big Dance.Even with all the records set this season, it would all be for naught if the Hawks fall short in the CAA Tournament. Letting a win slip away last March still fuels this year’s team heading into this weekend.”We’ve drawn from it all year as motivation,” Flemmings said. “In practices, we practice hard to make every possession count. During games, if we feel a little bit tired we just use that as motivation to keep going. That’s what we’ve been preparing all year for and even over the summer.”