Rick Pitino was wrong.
The Louisville coach is glad that he was, but he can admit now that he was wrong about Kevin Keatts.
When Keatts left Pitino and Louisville in 2014 to take over a flailing UNC Wilmington program, Pitino figured it would take Keatts some time to fix the Seahawks, who had suffered through six straight losing seasons.
“I knew he would turn it around,” Pitino said in an interview with The News & Observer. “It was how quickly he did that surprised me.”
It didn’t take Keatts – one of the primary targets in N.C. State’s coaching search to replace Mark Gottfried – long to take UNCW to the top of the Colonial Athletic Association.
The Seahawks (27-5) are the No. 1 seed in the CAA tournament and defeated Delaware 91-82 on Saturday in the quarterfinals in Charleston, S.C. They will play William & Mary at 2 p.m. Sunday in a semifinal game.
Undersized, the Seahawks play more like Pitino’s teams at Providence, with a reliance on the 3-pointer and some different pressure defense schemes. UNCW ranked in the top 25 in the country in scoring offense (84.6 points per game), 3-point attempts (825) and 3-pointers made (296).
UNCW won the CAA last year and made its first NCAA tournament (a 93-85 loss to fourth-seeded Duke) appearance since 2006.
Keatts won right away at UNCW. His first team went 18-14, doubling the win total from the previous year. In each of his three seasons, he has won at least a share of the CAA regular-season title and has a 41-13 mark in conference play.
That’s way ahead of the schedule UNCW athletic director Jimmy Bass had in mind when he called Pitino after Buzz Peterson’s last team went 9-23 in the 2013-14 season.
Keatts, 44, who grew up in Lynchburg, Va., and played point guard at Ferrum College in the early 1990s, made his name as the head coach at Hargrave Military Academy, a prep school in Chatham, Va. He won 263 games in 10 seasons over two different stints between 1999 and 2011 at the prep powerhouse.
Keatts joined Pitino’s Louisville staff before the 2011-12 season. He was an assistant for three years and was the primary recruiter for Louisville’s 2013 national championship team. Pitino has a long track record of helping assistants get their own jobs. Twenty-nine of his former assistants or players have become college head coaches. Herb Sendek had worked for Pitino at Providence and Kentucky before he was hired as N.C. State’s head coach in 1996.
Ten of Pitino’s former assistants are coaches at the Division I level this season. Pitino knew the drill when Bass called to talk about the UNCW job before Keatts was hired.
“He told me it was going to be a struggle,” Pitino said. “But Kevin took over a program that was dead in the woods, and he built it up right away.”
The reason for Keatts’ success is simple, Pitino said.
“He’s got the total package,” Pitino said. “He doesn’t have a weakness as a coach. He’s an outstanding recruiter, that was a big factor in us winning the championship.
“He knows how to scout and prepare. He also communicates with the players well. He has a great rapport with his players. He’s not soft on them but the players love him.”
Most coaches with such an extensive high school background would normally be dismissed for jobs at a major program, even for an assistant role, but Keatts has a knack for building relationships, ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg said.
“He was winning all those games, but he was very well-liked amongst his peers,” Greenberg said. “That’s hard to do. He’s very disarming. He’s got a likability about him.”
And Keatts understands how to develop players. He sent 103 players from Hargrave to Division I basketball, including former N.C. State guard Lorenzo Brown.
When Greenberg was the coach at Virginia Tech, from 2003 through 2012, he had a pipeline from Hargrave to Blacksburg, Va.
“We had a great relationship, and all of his guys were ready when they got here,” Greenberg said.
There is no doubt in Greenberg’s mind if N.C. State were to hire Keatts, his success would translate at the ACC level.
“Kevin is going to be successful no matter where he goes,” Greenberg said.
And Pitino has learned not to be surprised by Keatts’ quick success, either.
The hall-of-fame coach said he has not talked with Keatts specifically about the N.C. State job, but he gave him advice last year when his name was mentioned for other jobs.
Pitino told Keatts then: “Just be patient, wait for the right job.”
“He has a great job,” Pitino said. “He doesn’t have to jump at the first offer that comes along. And he doesn’t need to be somebody’s fourth or fifth choice for a job.”
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio
UNC Wilmington, third season (69-27)
Alma mater: Ferrum (1995), Marshall (2011)
Annual salary: $500,000
Previous stops: Louisville (assistant coach), Hargrave Military Academy (head coach), Marshall (assistant coach), Hargrave Military Academy (assistant coach), Southwestern Michigan (assistant coach).
Record at UNCW
*Won the CAA regular-season title