After his Virginia team survived a first-round NCAA tournament game with UNC-Wilmington, Tony Bennett marveled at the Seahawks’ quickness and aggressive style of play.
“There’s not a team in the ACC that’s like that,” Bennett said after the Cavaliers’ 76-71 win in Orlando, Fla. on Thursday.
That’s about to change. N.C. State hired Keatts on Friday, and the new Wolfpack coach will bring UNCW’s fast-paced style with him.
The Seahawks, 29-5 under Keatts this season, ranked in the top 25 in the NCAA in scoring (84.8 points per game), 3-pointers made (9.6 per game), 3-pointers attempted (917), assists (565) and turnover margin.
Keatts, who worked for three seasons under Louisville coach Rick Pitino, employs many of the same principles as Pitino’s early Providence and Kentucky teams – lots of 3s, cranked up defensive pressure and different types of traps and presses.
Keatts led the Seahawks to the Colonial Athletic Association title the past two years and a spot in the NCAA tournament. Undersized, the Seahawks spread the floor on offense and don’t rely on a conventional inside-out style.
UNCW’s guards excelled under Keatts. C.J. Bryce (17.4 points per game), Chris Flemmings (15.8) and Denzel Ingram (14.6) made the offense go. Flemmings (Cary) and Ingram (Chapel Hill) are Triangle products. Devontae Cacok, an undersized power forward at 6-7, led the country in field-goal shooting percentage at an incredible 80 percent (184-of-230).
The Seahawks do have some similarities with at least one ACC team.
“They push the pace, kind of like we do here,” said North Carolina senior guard Stilman White, who grew up a Seahawks fan in Wilmington. “They’re a really fun team to watch. I don’t think people understand, because they don’t get much exposure, how much of a fun team that was to watch.”
Fun to watch and difficult to stop. Virginia, who trailed by as many as 15 points in the first half of Thursday’s tournament game, had to go to a five-guard lineup to combat UNCW’s spacing and quickness.
“There’s certain things, but it’s just they’re quick,” Bennett said. “They’re small. … That was really unique to what we have seen all year.”
UNCW athletic director Jimmy Bass expects the Wolfpack will eventually play the same way.
“They’re going to run and run and then run some more,” Bass said. “Our motto has been ‘run, defend, win.’ That’s what we’ve done and it works.”
But it will take work, the UNCW AD said. Stamina is a key part to Keatts’ system. If you want to run and press, you have to be fit and Keatts will make sure of that.
Keatts pulled a page out of the “Hoosiers” playbook and had his UNCW players practice without a basketball early in his first season.
“They may think they have run before, but it’s going to be a shock to their system,” Bass said.
UNCW went 9-23 the season before Bass hired Keatts from Louisville in 2014.
“We were at rock bottom,” Bass said, noting the program had an NCAA tournament drought that went back to Brad Brownell’s final season in 2006.
But Keatts had a firm idea about the style of play UNCW could use to be successful, even if it was with a smaller lineup and unheralded players.
UNCW went 18-14 in Keatts’ first season and then jumped to 25-8 in 2016 and won a school-record 29 games this season.
Bass said it will be interesting to see how Keatts does with bigger and stronger players in the ACC. Bass wasn’t too familiar with N.C. State’s roster but he did make one prediction.
“Those kids are going to have fun playing in his system,” Bass said.
Luke DeCock contributed to this report
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio