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Kevin Keatts has turned UNC-Wilmington into a potential March Madness giant slayer

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UNCW nearly stunned Duke in the 2016 NCAA tournament. A year later, the Seahawks might be even more dangerous.

NCAA Basketball: CAA Conference Tournament Finals- Hofstra vs North Carolina-Wilmington Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Winning 20 games in a single college basketball season doesn’t resonate the way it once did. The touchstone no longer serves as an automatic job-saver or NCAA tournament ticket-puncher, but that doesn’t mean it’s completely devoid of meaning.

For UNC-Wilmington, reaching the 20-victory plateau has always been cause for celebration. It’s something the program failed to do in each of the first 21 years of its existence, and something that it’s still done just seven times ever.

After current Clemson head coach Brad Brownell left for greener pastures in 2006, Wilmington went from viewing 20 wins as a benchmark to simply hoping to avoid seeing the number pop up underneath the loss column.

Between 2006 and 2014, UNCW won fewer than 10 games four times and lost 20 or more contests five times. When Kevin Keatts arrived from Louisville in the spring of 2014, he inherited a program that had gone 42-80 in four seasons under Buzz Peterson, hadn’t finished anywhere near .500 in conference play since 2008, and hadn’t won a conference championship of any sort in nearly a decade.

What followed was an immediate, complete and ultimately sustained turnaround that not even Keatts was certain could be accomplished. At least, not right away.

“I had seen tape of them before and what was apparent right away was that they were going to have to get in much better shape in order to play our style,” Keatts told SB Nation. “I said that to them in our very first meeting. They took the message to heart and got in incredible shape. I had three seniors who had never won. They had already lost 65 games heading into their senior year. We talked that summer about changing the course of the program, and those guys immediately bought in. You could see their confidence growing every game.”

Picked to finish ninth in the 10-team Colonial Athletic Association before its first year under Keatts, Wilmington wound up going 12-6 and winning a share of the conference’s regular season championship. The Seahawks’ nine-game improvement in conference play from the season before was the greatest of any team in Division I.

After losing those three seniors — a trio that included all-CAA performer Cedrick Williams — the challenge for Keatts in 2015-16 became the unexpected one of replicating his team’s surprise success.

Enter Chris Flemmings.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament- Duke University vs UNC Wilmington Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

College basketball has never been short on diamond in the rough stories. Flemmings’ story is more of a diamond on a deserted island tale.

Viewed as being neither big nor talented enough to play anywhere at the Division I level coming out of high school, Flemmings landed at Division II Barton College in Wilson, N.C. Despite putting up some solid numbers in each of his first two seasons with the Bulldogs, no D-I schools came calling. When nearby UNCW fired Peterson just four days after the end of its 2013-14 season, Flemmings’ mother took matters into her own hands.

On a March day in 2014, Tracy Flemmings showed up at UNC-Wilmington’s gym and told assistant coach Kevin Easley, the only coach remaining from Peterson’s staff, that her son was interested in playing for him. Easley informed her that the program was in a state of flux, and that he wasn’t even sure if he’d be coaching the Seahawks next season. As a courtesy, he took down her name and information.

Fast forward a few weeks and Keatts is giving his new staff, which includes Easley, the aforementioned speech about needing to get this team in shape. In order to make that happen, he needs bodies. Not necessarily for games, but just to give them an opportunity to run the type of grueling practices that he wants to make the new norm. The bodies don’t even have to be bodies that are particularly skilled at basketball.

That’s how Chris Flemmings, who averaged 16.2 points per game and was named First Team All-Colonial Athletic Association in his first Division I season, wound up walking on to the UNC-Wilmington basketball team. It’s a Rudy story for the 21st century, except this time Rudy is actually good.

“This kid is golden,” Keatts says of his unconventional star. “His story, man, it’s right up there with anything I’ve ever heard. He represents everything we want to be in terms of how he works, his effort in the classroom, and that’s why he’s the first walk-on ever to be named Preseason Player of the Year in the CAA. He’s been the underdog his entire life, and his story is only going to continue to grow.”

Fueled by the unforeseen rise of Flemmings, UNCW tied a school record with 25 wins in 2015-16, and once again won a share of the CAA’s regular season championship. In the league tournament, the Seahawks showcased a level of poise and desire that fans of the program hadn’t witnessed in over a decade. They defeated College of Charleston by two in the quarterfinals, squeaked out a 73-70 semifinal win over Northeastern the next day, and then knocked off top-seeded Hofstra in an overtime thriller to punch the program’s first ticket to the NCAA tournament since 2006.

Wilmington took center stage a week-and-a-half later when it played in the first game to tip-off on the NCAA tournament’s opening Thursday. The opponent was another North Carolina program with slightly more success historically than UNCW’s 1-5 mark in the big dance: the Duke Blue Devils.

With an entire country hungry for the start of March Madness tuning in, UNCW appeared poised to pull off the tournament’s first upset. The Seahawks showed no reluctance to play Duke’s up-tempo style, and carried a 43-40 advantage into the locker room at halftime. In the second half, a plethora of foul trouble and the play of Blue Devil big man Marshall Plumlee — a player with size and skill that Keatts had no answer for — began to take its toll. The Seahawks remained within striking distance until the game’s final minute, but were ultimately dealt a 93-85 defeat.

“After that Duke game, you know, most mid-major teams would have been excited about the fact that they had the opportunity to play Duke, especially when you’re playing one of the big schools in your state,” Keatts said. “We were, as a team, devastated after that game. We didn’t come into that tournament just hoping to look good, we came to win the game. We thought we were going to win the game, and it was disappointing that we didn’t.”

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament- Duke University vs UNC Wilmington Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

When UNCW hit the 20-win mark in Keatts’ third season on the job, it wasn’t near the end of the season mile-marker that it had been in years past. The Seahawks hit 20 wins on Jan. 26, when they improved to 20-2 overall. The only team to get there faster this season was Gonzaga, which got there three days earlier on its way to winning its first 29 games.

Flemmings has again been a star for UNCW, averaging 15.7 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. But he hasn’t been the brightest. That distinction belongs to guard C.J. Bryce, a good player as a freshman who has become great as a sophomore. Bryce leads the Seahawks in both scoring (17.5 ppg) and field goals made (206), and ranks second in both assists (3.0 apg) and rebounds.

The biggest difference between this year’s UNCW team and the last two — and perhaps the reason the Seahawks might be even better-suited for a memorable March run — is the emergence of a legitimate post presence.

Devontae Cacok played sparingly as a freshman, but was told by Keatts after the season that he had the potential to be a key contributor as a sophomore if he got himself in shape. The 6’7 forward responded in a major way, and will head into the postseason averaging nearly a double-double at 12.2 points and 9.8 rebounds per game. Cacok also owns the distinction of leading the nation in field-goal percentage. He has connected on an absurd 163 of 207 shot attempts this year, good for 78.7 percent from the field. That places him well ahead of the runner-up in the category, Central Florida big man Tacko Fall (73.6 percent).

The perfect combination of veteran stars and sophomore surprises has resulted in an already historic season for UNCW. The Seahawks have set a new school record for wins (26), won more games than any team before them in the 50-year history of Trask Coliseum (13), and claimed the Colonial’s outright regular season title with a 15-3 league mark. They’ll head into this week’s conference tournament in North Charleston, S.C. as the top seed and the overwhelming favorite to earn the league’s auto-bid to the NCAA tournament for a second straight year.

Regardless of what happens in the postseason, Keatts has already enjoyed the type of instant success as a head coach that is impossible to ignore. And the rest of the country hasn’t.

Any Google search pertaining to the coaching vacancy at NC State is bound to feature at least one mention of Keatts. A handful of discussions about gigs that aren’t open yet, but might be soon, also aren’t bashful about mentioning his name.

The speculation is easy to understand given the fact that Keatts, who just six years ago was coaching prep school ball at Hargrave Military Academy, has yet to have a season in which he hasn’t been named his conference’s Coach of the Year. It’s even more digestible when you add in the fact that the man is the latest product of the Rick Pitino coaching tree, which has a history of churning out high-level success stories.

“He tells you on the day he hires you that he’s not hiring you as an assistant,” Keatts says of Pitino. “He’s hiring you as a future head coach.”

Though Keatts has stated that it’s “flattering” to hear his name mentioned as a candidate for multiple high-profile jobs, he’s not interested in dealing with hypotheticals at the moment. That’s because the reality sitting in front of him at the present time is one to be envied.

There are no guarantees in college basketball’s unforgiving postseason, but UNC-Wilmington certainly appears to fit the profile of a March Madness Cinderella to a tee. The Seahawks share the ball as well as any team in the country, they have multiple players who can knock down the outside shot, they have high-level athletes, and they have a couple of front-court players who can minimize the size-differential impact against a power conference opponent.

Perhaps most importantly, UNCW has the memory of what it felt like to come so close to being an NCAA tournament immortal, and then having that dream ripped away.

“I think that (Duke loss) is what’s motivated these guys throughout the year,” Keatts said. “They saw right there in that game that we can play with anybody in the country on any given night. I think all of their confidence has grown since that time.

“If we’re fortunate enough to get back to the tournament, I think that experience will really benefit us.”