Looking Forward: UNCW

It’s fair to hold procrastinators who post season previews the day before the season starts more accountable for their words than those responsible people who planned ahead, and made their predictions weeks before Daylight Savings.

Had I written this preview back then, it’s undeniable that I would’ve pegged UNCW to finish higher up the standings. Early last month UNCW head honcho Kevin Keatts dismissed Jarvis Haywood, the high-scoring guard who sat last season after transferring in from Jacksonville, before he ever had a chance to play a meaningful game in Trask.

With Haywood in hand, UNCW was my sleeper pick to win the whole damn league. Even without Haywood, I still think we might all be dozing on this team.

Yes, UNCW graduated its top two scorers in Addison Spruill (All-CAA First Team) and Freddie Jackson (All-CAA Second Team). The duo combined to average 27.5 points per game, and turned in stellar senior seasons that helped UNCW go from worst to first in a matter of one season.

But before last season, we were much more concerned with the impending graduation of athletic shot blocker Cedrick Williams. I didn’t write that to downplay the graduations of Spruill and Jackson, but to serve as a testament to Keatts, who coached a team picked to finish ninth into a first-place finale.

Kids bought into Keatts almost immediately, evidenced by the fact that the coaching change did not result in a single voluntary defection. Keatts’ system requires guys to play hard for 40 minutes each night, and is designed to muck things up and keep the Seahawks close no matter the opposition’s offensive prowess.

All last season, the buzz out of Wilmington signaled that the transfers who sat last season were better than the guys dawning the highlighter and teal-tinged jerseys. Haywood was the most highly regarded of that bunch, and is a no-doubt big loss.

But this year’s roster is unquestionably deeper, and potentially more talented from top to bottom. While it’s impossible to project how the seven newcomers will slide into UNCW’s rotation, the returning backcourt players will play a huge role in determining whether or not the Dubmen are queued for an encore.

As was the case last season, this team’s strength projects to be its backcourt.

UNCW returns the lone player who started all 32 games in ’14-’15: redshirt senior Craig Ponder. The longest-tenured Seahawk has a history with Keatts dating back to ’10-’11 at Hargrave Military Academy. Ponder shot 44-of-97 (45.4%) from three last season, and might have been the most naturally talented upperclassmen guard on the roster. If he can improve upon his assist-to-turnover ratio, he’ll have a great chance at following Spruill and Jackson’s steps to an accolade-garnering season.

Sophomore Jordon Talley held down the point guard position for a team stocked full of fourth-year college guards, and concluded the season as an All-CAA Rookie Team pick. On a squad that will have more guys capable of stretching defenses with long-range shooting, Talley’s ability to drive the lane and get to the foul line will be further accentuated.

Newcomers will comprise the rest of the backcourt, and Eric Detweiler has been on the workingman’s grind to get us up to speed on these guys. Of the aforementioned transfers, redshirt junior Denzel Ingram started 38 games over two seasons at UNC Charlotte, and will give the Seahawks another reliable ballhandler. Ingram averaged 8.1 points per game as a sophomore, and hit 44.1% from three. Walk-on Chris Flemmings sat last season after transferring in from D-II Barton College, and stuffed the stat sheet in UNCW’s exhibition game against his old school.

The incoming freshmen will provide Keatts with a plethora of lineup options. Per Detweiler, 6’5” freshman C.J. Bryce is a versatile piece who can play positions one through four. 6’6” Mark Matthews can play three spots, and it’s very telling that Matthews, who tallied a team-high 28 points in the Bahamas, induced Detweiler to write the names Luke Hancock and Brett Blizzard in neighboring sentences.

The line between the frontcourt and the backcourt will be blurred at times. Three upperclassmen returners averaged between 12-16 minutes per game, and each brings a unique skill set to the frontcourt.

6’9” senior Dylan Sherwood logged 17.6 minutes per game over UNCW’s final 15 outings. Two-thirds of Sherwood’s field-goal attempts came from beyond the arc, where he connected at a 38.5% clip last season. His minutes will likely fluctuate again this season, but he’s an intriguing piece.

Chuck Ogbodo progressed between his freshman and sophomore seasons, posting some nice lines in the nonconference portion of the schedule. I’m interested to see if he can replace Williams as the Dub’s best shot blocker.

Keatts knows he’ll need to pick his spots with 7’0” 275-pound junior C.J. Gettys, who started 16 of UNCW’s first 21 games in ’14-’15. Gettys scored in double figures three times, and it’s noteworthy that two of those performances came against high-speed Hofstra.

Walk-on senior Kevin Hickson will also mix in here and there.

Once again, there are newcomers who will try to steal minutes from the incumbents. Redshirt sophomore Marcus Bryan is another Charlotte transfer who should find a steady role as one of the only true post players with D-I experience. 6’7” freshman Trey Grundy is another Hargrave guy, and it’s telling that Keatts first met Grundy when Grundy was visiting Louisville. Devontae Cacok plays with the energy Keatts craves, and should find a spot as an athletic rebounder.

While it’s impossible to know how the starts and minutes will play out, we do know the sorts of things UNCW will need to do to be successful. The Seahawks posted a +1.7 turnover ratio, good for 62nd nationally last season. Their intense defensive effort will produce turnovers, but it’s worth mentioning that they coughed it up 25 times in their exhibition versus Barton.

While they might not have the most on-court experience, Ingram, Flemmings, and Bryan have been practicing with the team for well over a year now. There are numerous guys who’ve redshirted, and others who played an extra year at the prep level. Additionally, this past summer’s foreign trip to the Bahamas was the perfect happenstance for a team integrating so many new pieces.

While growing pains are inevitable, I have full faith that the reigning CAA Coach of the Year will extract maximum effort from his team on a nightly basis. Keatts has accumulated many complementary pieces, and depth that did not exist last season. I think they’re in a similar spot as Delaware last season, in that some lumps in the nonconference season will give way to some perceived upsets when January rolls around.

While the Seahawks will face a tougher CAA than the Blue Hens did last season, they have the talent and coaching to become one of the more feared teams in Baltimore.

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