Takayo Siddle’s impact felt early in UNCW tenure

The first-year coach has brought an up-tempo style that “demands a lot” of the Seahawks

Takayo Siddle has brought the relentless pressure defense he learned as a longtime assistant to Kevin Keatts to UNC Wilmington. (Photo courtesy UNCW basketball)

GREENVILLE — East Carolina had just made its seventh 3-point basket of the first half Monday, a wide-open jumper by Miles James right in front of the UNC Wilmington bench.

Upset at his team, Seahawks coach Takayo Siddle called time out.

“What are you doing?” he yelled at his players rhetorically, a question he repeated so passionately for emphasis that it echoed throughout the near-empty Minges Coliseum.

That was only a mild admonishment compared to the one Siddle gave the team once it got back to its locker room trailing 51-37.

“I don’t want to say what I said at halftime,” the former NC State assistant said. “I gave them some tough love (because) I didn’t think we played up to our standard and what I expect out of those guys.”

The tongue-lashing was a not-so-subtle reminder to the returning players, along with the many newcomers, that there’s a new sheriff in town. And that he’s not going to put up with the bad habits that led to the past three losing seasons.

It’s a message that seemed to be received loud and clear as UNCW began the second half with a 30-8 run on the way to turning its 14-point deficit into a 10-point lead.

Although the Seahawks eventually lost the game 88-78 in overtime to the more experienced Pirates, the second-half performance was a clear sign that the team is already buying into its energetic rookie coach.

“They showed some grit and some toughness. It showed me a lot,” Siddle said. “That’s how we need to play all the time. That’s what I expect.”

The Seahawks’ style under Siddle, an up-tempo attack that starts with a pressure defense designed to convert turnovers into easy baskets, is noticeably similar to the one he learned from former boss Kevin Keatts.

And that’s no accident.

Siddle’s first job in coaching was at Keatts’ side at Hargrave Military Academy in 2009-10 before reuniting for successful tenures together at both UNCW and State.

When the youthful-looking 33-year-old earned his first victory as a head coach, a 76-68 win at UNC Asheville the day after Thanksgiving, Keatts was among the first to congratulate him with a post on social media.

“I’ve been knowing coach for half of my life. He’s been a huge mentor to me,” Siddle said. “A lot of what we do is what I learned from him. There are just some little tweaks here and there, but we’ll play the exact same we played with Coach Keatts.”

That similarity and the fact that Siddle was a member of the Seahawks’ staff during a run of three straight Colonial Athletic Association regular season championships that included two NCAA Tournament appearances from 2015-17 was a major selling point for athletic director Jimmy Bass when he set out to hire a replacement for former coach C.B. McGrath last spring.

But that wasn’t the only reason he got the job.

“Where it started for me is that Takayo is a players’ coach,” Bass said. “He is one of the most prolific recruiters in America at the high major, the mid-major, whatever division he’s at. Kids want to come be a part of his program because they like him and they like the style he plays. That was the key for us.”

Despite the handicap of not being able to work with his players and bond with them in person because of limitations caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Siddle’s influence on the program is already being felt.

Through four games, the Seahawks are 2-2 with wins against UNC Asheville and Troy to go along with losses to Western Carolina and ECU.

Senior guard Mike Okauru, who started all 30 games last season after transferring from Florida, can already see the difference Siddle is making.

“He’s a young guy, so he understands how the game is right now,” Okauru said of Siddle. “He gives his players the freedom on offense if you play hard on defense. But he demands a lot. He wants us to play hard all the time. That’s something we have got to get accustomed to (in order) to further this team.”

With a roster anchored by holdovers such as Okauru, wing Jaylen Sims and point guard Ty Gadsden, along with the addition of promising freshman guard Jamahri Harvey and Holy Cross transfer Joe Pridgen — who had 11 points and seven rebounds in his UNCW debut Monday — there’s renewed excitement in the direction of the program.

“Takayo is still installing his culture, his system and I think the kids have responded really well,” Bass said. “It’s a shock to their system a little bit with the tempo they’re playing and the energy they’ve got to bring defensively.

“But they’ve responded by the amount of conditioning the staff requires of them. I think it’s just a matter of them continuing to adjust.”