UNCW looking to make more history against Virginia in NCAA Tournament

Seahawks draw another ACC team, but this year has a different feel in a 12 vs. 5 matchup against scuffling Cavaliers

Christine T. Nguyen—The North State Journal
UNC Wilmington center Devontae Cacok scores during a game last season (Christine T. Nguyen/North State Journal file photo)

One month ago, Virginia was the No. 12 team in the country and still in line for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Instead, the Cavaliers dropped four straight games in ACC play and struggled to find any semblance of an offense before falling to the sixth seed in the conference.The Hoos downed a lowly Pittsburgh team in Brooklyn, but got drubbed by Notre Dame for a quick exit from the ACC Tournament. Now UNCW is hoping to bounce UVA in the first round of the NCAA Tournament like it nearly did to Duke the year prior. It would mark the second win in the Big Dance and first since a win over USC in 2002.”The excitement around this program is so high heading into Orlando,” coach Kevin Keatts said. “The pressure has been greater for us this year because we started at No. 1 in our conference and finished that way. This team knows how to deal with pressure, and there’s no greater pressure than the NCAA Tournament.”Last year, the Seahawks actually led at halftime, 43-40, against Duke before allowing 53 in the second half. That team was led by Craig Ponder’s 22 points, but the Hawks have Chris Flemmings, Denzel Ingram and C.J. Bryce — who combined to score 51 points in that game — back in the fold against UVA.This year didn’t see any slow down for the Hawks’ offense, ranking No. 10 in the country at 85.2 points per game and 18th in the country in adjusted offense (117.8), according to KenPom. UNCW also ranks fourth in the country in points per possession (1.181) behind only UCLA, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s. Virginia, on the other hand, comes in at 312th in the country in points per game at 66.6.But defense doesn’t take a night off, and the Hoos have just that. UVA ranks No. 1 in the country in points per game at 55.6 and first in adjusted defense (87) on the season. Keatts knows all about UVA coach Tony Bennett’s defense, but isn’t ready to “embrace the pace” when they square off Thursday.”We know how good they are on defense, but we feel we can get our offense going against anyone,” Keatts said. “We have really contrasting styles, so it’s going to be interesting. They’re also capable of scoring baskets, too, so we have to do a great job on both ends. Everyone in this tournament is capable of beating anybody, though, and we firmly believe that.”Bennett echoed Keatts’ sentiments on the balance in teams during March Madness.”You’ve got to love the challenge,” Bennett said. “It seems like every year the parity in NCAA basketball is even more prevalent and you’re obviously going to play a really good basketball team. The seeding stuff is really not as relevant. … What Kevin [Keatts] has done at UNC Wilmington with their success and then having been in the tournament, you’re going to play an excellent team.”The biggest change for this year’s UNCW team heading into March is the emergence of Devontae Cacok. Despite not playing much last season, Cacok has blossomed into the CAA Defensive Player of the Year and a double-double threat for the Seahawks every game.Cacok finished the CAA Tournament at 16-of-17 from the field and 13.3 points per game to go along with averaging nearly eight rebounds during the three contests. He also leads the nation in field-goal percentage at 79.9 percent. In three games against Delaware alone, Cacok went 17-of-17 shooting and has missed two or more shots in just three of the last 12 games — all three losses.With his team’s season on the line against a stingy Cavaliers defense, Keatts is planning to rely heavily on his consistent big man in Orlando.”He’s been great,” Keatts said. “We have a guy now who can finish at the rim and he’s got a little over 80 dunks. We talked at the beginning of the year about breaking the UNCW dunk record and not only did he break it, he shattered it. … To get where we want to go, we’ll need him to add to that.”