WILMINGTON — When UNC Wilmington athletic director Jimmy Bass set out to find a new basketball coach two seasons ago, his goal was to find someone capable of returning the program to the prominence it enjoyed before Kevin Keatts left for NC State in 2017.
Since he couldn’t bring Keatts back, he did the next best thing by plucking off a branch from Keatts’ coaching tree.
And the strategy is working out even better than anyone could have expected.
The Seahawks have rebounded quickly under Takayo Siddle. In just his second year on the job, the former Keatts and UNCW assistant has turned a program coming off four straight losing seasons into one of the hottest teams in the country.
Monday’s 70-63 victory against Drexel at a raucous Trask Coliseum was UNCW’s 12th straight, breaking the school record of 11 in a row set by the 2015-16 team he helped coach.
While the results and the aggressiveness with which the Seahawks play are as familiar as the face of the man orchestrating it from the sideline, Siddle is quick to point out that the team’s recent success is more than just a case of back to the future.
“It’s easy to say that this is a similar style, but there’s a lot of differences in what we do,” the 35-year-old Gardner-Webb graduate said. “(Keatts) has this philosophy. I have my philosophy that I believe in. There’s some similarities, but it’s a lot of differences too. You take what you like and what you don’t like, you put your own spin on it and do things your own way.”
Siddle’s way has worked well thus far. After going 8-10 (1-6 in the Colonial Athletic Association) during the COVID-interrupted 2020-21 season, he’s taken a group that was picked to finish ninth in its 10-team conference straight to the top of the league standings.
At 15-5 overall (9-0 CAA), the Seahawks have become the clear front-runners for their first NCAA Tournament berth since Keatts’ final season in 2017.
It’s an improvement that, while bolstered by the addition of three key transfers — including graduate guard Jaylen Fornes, who left UNCW for Nichols State, only to return this year — has been driven by the play and leadership of holdovers Jaylen Sims, Shykeim Phillips, Mike Okauru and Jamahri Harvey.
But it hasn’t been easy.
All but one of the 12 straight wins have come by eight points or fewer, with two going into overtime. In six of its nine conference games, UNCW has trailed by as many as 10 points before rallying to win. That includes an 18-point first-half deficit in Monday’s win against Drexel.
In each case, though, the Seahawks have found a way to rally and prevail.
As successful as they’ve been coming from behind, it’s not a trend Siddle would prefer his team keep repeating. Especially as they continue to gain recognition and praise.
“We’ve learned how to win games,” he said. “Now that we’re on top, it’s an ongoing battle — especially with kids these days with social media. You can’t really hide from it, and I would love to. We talk to these guys about staying grounded.
“I’m a big stats guy, and I put up on the board all the time why we’ve been successful — our defensive numbers, our offensive numbers, just showing them why we’ve been successful and talking to them about their qualities as a unit. So it’s just a constant thing you know, every day is a new challenge.”
Beyond the X’s and O’s, one theme in particular has resonated with Siddle and his players.
“Coach put a sign in the locker room and it said ‘Humility,’” senior guard Sims said. “So we’re making sure every day we continue to work hard and get better and not be satisfied with just winning (12) games in a row.”
It’s a streak that began just four days after the Seahawks’ worst performance of the season, a 77-48 beatdown at the hands of Jacksonville.
The loss might have served as a wake-up call, but the more tangible reason for the dramatic turnaround that followed can be traced to a subtle lineup change made by Siddle and his staff. It involved moving Phillips from point guard to shooting guard while putting the ball into the hands of Sims, the team’s leading scorer at 14.6 points per game.
“Watching film and seeing him in games, Shykeim seemed a little hesitant,” Siddle said of Phillips, who averages 11.5 points per game. “It seemed while he was making plays, he was more comfortable doing it for himself. And in practice, nobody can stop him. So I thought it was a perfect time to take him off the ball to focus on scoring the basketball. And Jaylen is just a really good player that can play a bunch of positions.”
It’s a move that would have made his mentor proud, not that Keatts isn’t already.
“He completely earned the right to be the head coach at UNC Wilmington. He paid his dues,” Keatts said of Siddle. “He was a part of three (CAA) championships that we had. I’m excited for him. He’s doing an amazing job there and I hope they continue to win.”