You probably didn't realize it, but this was the year of the Colonial Athletic Association.
Most seasons, the CAA ranks somewhere between the 15th and 20th best conference in Ken Pomeroy's rankings. The last three years, it featured a grand total of zero teams ranked among the top 100 in college basketball. This year, the CAA ranked ninth, the highest since Pomeroy began tracking in 1999, and it featured four teams in the top 100.
And UNC-Wilmington won it.
For a while there, the Seahawks languished near the bottom of the CAA, but two people have helped turn everything around. The first is coach Kevin Keatts, a long time prep school coach who left Rick Pitino's staff at Louisville for his first head college job at Wilmington. The second is Chris Flemmings, a Division II transfer and walk-on who somehow became UNCW's best player.
How can they pull the upset?
The Seahawks play some serious small ball. Although they do have a 7-footer, CJ Gettys, on the roster, he only plays 15 minutes a game. Five players play over half of the Seahawks' minutes, and all five are 6'5 or smaller.
The flip side of that equation is that this makes UNCW a great defensive team on the perimeter. They prevent teams from shooting a lot of threes (their opposing 3PA/FGA ratio is 28.9, 11th-lowest in college basketball) and teams only shoot 34.1 percent on those few threes they manage. However, the Seahawks really struggle inside. Twenty-nine percent of opponents' points are on free throws, the highest ratio in the country. Gettys averages 7.6 fouls per 40 minutes, Devontae Cacok averages 8.6 fouls per 40 minutes, Marcus Bryan averages 6.3 fouls per 40 minutes.
If UNCW plays an opponent that thrives on threes, they can neutralize that threat. If they play a team with a bunch of talented inside scorers, they're probably out of luck.
DII: The Mighty Seahawk
It's reasonably rare for Division II players to transfer up to Division I. It's extremely rare for Division II players to transfer up to Division I and immediately become their team's best player. It's essentially unheard of for a Division II player to transfer up to Division I, immediately become his team's best player and lead them to the NCAA tournament. That's what Chris Flemmings has done, all while paying his own tuition.
Flemmings went completely unrecruited by Division I teams out of high school, who thought he was too small to compete at that level. He wound up at Barton, a school of 1,200 that won the 2007 D-II tournament. There, he averaged almost 20 points and seven rebounds per game and was named Carolinas Conference Player of the Year. Still, nobody at the top level of college hoops wanted him.
UNCW only heard about Flemmings because Flemmings' mom showed up in UNCW's gym just days after the school had fired the majority of its coaching staff. When they eventually hired Keatts, word of Flemmings' mom's visit eventually made its way to him. Knowing he needed a lot of warm bodies to run an up-tempo system, he agreed to let Flemmings pay his own way. He had no idea he was getting his new best player.
I don't know how Flemmings slipped through the cracks so aggressively, but I look forward to him going undrafted, getting signed by an NBA team on the smallest contract possible, then winning NBA Finals MVP.
You probably think UNCW is ripping off the football team in Seattle with their team name. You'd be wrong! Wilmington's sports teams have been named the Seahawks since 1947, before the dang NFL even existed. They opted for the Seahawks nickname because a) Wilmington is on the sea, ya jackwads and b) during World War II, Iowa Pre-Flight dominated the college football world with a team known as the Seahawks.
You might think crimes committed in the names of college rivalry are limited to the nation's biggest schools, but that's not true! UNCW got its $70,000 Seahawk statue stolen in 2014, and when it was recovered two months later, the culprits turned out to be UNC-Greensboro students. UNC-Duke ain't the only rivalry in North Carolina, y'all!
Why do I know these guys?
Yo, UNCW has been good before. It's possible you remember them from the 2002 NCAA Tournament, when the No. 13 seeded Seahawks took a 19-point lead over USC, only to blow it before pulling away in overtime. The team stayed strong for a few years: In 2003 and 2006, the Seahawks had teams in the top 40 on Ken Pomeroy's ratings.
The last NBA player from UNC-Wilmington was Matt Fish, who played two years for a few teams. Hearing the name "Matt Fish" took me back to a very specific memory ...
This might shock you, but in the early 1990's, the Knicks were good. Really good! They made the Finals twice. My dad and my brother were Knicks fans, and although I was a youngster, I tried to be a Knicks fan too. Every once in a while, my dad and brother would discuss a really bad player, and their stand-in example for a bad player was "Matt Fish." As in "he's really bad -- he's almost as bad as Matt Fish." I had never seen Fish play, and at the time, I didn't have the technology or the critical thinking abilities to research Fish and who he was, but I was led to believe he was the pinnacle of bad basketball.
Now I do have that technology! So here is what I can find. In Feb. 1996, Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley were injured, forcing the Knicks to start Brad Lohaus. To make up for the injuries, they signed Fish, a 6'11 center out of the CBA who had been cut by the Pistons after breaking two ribs coughing. With little to no depth, they started Fish the next day in a nationally televised game against the Lakers. The Knicks were blown out, but Fish had a good night, scoring 10 points on 5-of-8 shooting. But eventually, Ewing and Oakley got healthy. Fish played two minutes in garbage time a few nights later, and when his 10-day contract expired, the Knicks didn't renew it.
Fish would play a few more games in his short career and achieved nothing remarkable, but after 20 years, I've finally solved a mystery. My dad and brother probably watched the one game Matt Fish started, saw the Knicks lose, and then never saw him play again, and that's how he became our stand-in for the worst player ever. Matt, I'm sorry. You deserved better, both from the Knicks and from my dad. Go Seahawks.
Can they really pull the upset?
It's not impossible!
There's nothing hyper-exciting about UNCW's resume. They only played one power conference opponent, a middling Georgetown team, and they lost by five. But it's tough to discount the winner of one of college basketball's better mid-major leagues.
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Greatest NCAA Cinderella: Is it 1983 NC State or 2010 Butler?
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