Run. Defend. Win. It’s a simple three-word slogan that’s been plastered on billboards across Wilmington as part of the UNCW marketing scheme to get fans excited for the upcoming basketball season. It’s also a motto second-year men’s coach Kevin Keatts wanted to trademark for his program when taking over the team in April 2014.
Following one of the biggest turnarounds in the nation last year, with a regular season Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) co-championship under their belts, the Seahawks are looking to build off the efforts from an 18-13 season cut short in the CAA semifinals after a 78-71 setback to eventual NCAA Tournament participant Northeastern.
“I’m excited about the bunch,” said Keatts. “It’s a different group than I’m used to, with two fifth year seniors, a couple of juniors, a sophomore point-guard, who was all-conference, along with four freshmen and three transfers. It’s a unique, different group, but we’ve been very happy with the effort so far. I’m really excited about the weekend and practicing for a long time going forward.”
Friday marks the first official practice day for UNCW, with 10 workouts this summer, which were NCAA approved leading up to the Seahawks’ trip to the Bahamas in August.
“They’re good friends off the court and challenge each other on the court,” Keatts added. “They have a great personality as a group and the trip was great for us because you had a chance to learn a lot about your teammates, a lot about your coaches and guys were really able to come together. We laughed together, had a good time in everything we did and I think when teams can bond together off the court, I think it helps you win on the court.”
The immediate success for the men’s basketball team surpassed many expectations under Keatts in year one. The outlook heading into a new season is “sky’s the limit” as the front man of the program and student-athletes held the team’s 28th annual media day at Trask Coliseum on Thursday.
“This place has a chance to be electric,” said Keatts. “I was blown away last year with the amount of support we received from the students and community. I learned that Trask can be a tremendous home court advantage. It was a tough place to play and certainly I want to keep the atmosphere like that this year.”
While the Seahawks have been working this offseason on making the 2014-15 season the beginning of a new brand of basketball for a team that saw the program’s first post-season berth in eight seasons, there’s still a healthy assignment ahead leading up to the opener on November 13. As the team begins to take shape over the next few weeks after losing three top contributors – who served as leaders on the court from a scoring, rebounding and experience standpoint – redshirt senior Craig Ponder believes the pieces are in place as he gears up for his final year at UNCW.
“I want to pick up on what the seniors left last year,” said Ponder. “They built a new dynasty and set the program in the right direction. I just want to continue that trend and keep it going. One thing that coach is really big on is playing hard every play and giving the most every time you’re out on the floor. That’s one of the things I really want to focus on to make sure some of the new guys understand early, just work hard all the time.”
Following their trip to the Bahamas, sophomore point guard Jordon Talley thinks the camaraderie built during the five-day voyage and countless hours in the gym has UNCW poised to make it an encore to remember coming off the program’s first winning season since 2007-2008.
“We’re building a great team and a great friendship,” Talley said. “It starts with the coaches and goes all the way down to the freshmen and transfers. Everyone has come along through the summer, working hard and building what hopefully will be a great season.”
Joining Ponder in the Seahawks’ backcourt as the only other returning starter from last season, Talley made the most of his first-year in teal, averaging 8.8 points in 26.5 minutes per game. He took over as the team’s floor general through the conference tournament as the Richmond, Va., playmaker ended up fourth on the club in scoring and led the team with 85 assists – third most by a freshman in UNCW history. He was named CAA Rookie of the Week twice and landed a spot on the CAA All-Rookie Team at the conclusion of the regular season.
Both he and Ponder understand the task ahead, with a healthy mix of players set to make their debut in a little over two months. Ponder hopes to make the most of the opportunity to keep UNCW on the college hoops map.
In terms of the fan base and anticipation building up to the season, Trask Coliseum turned into a true home court advantage for the Seahawks last year, with a 10-2 record at home, which helped propel Keatts to CAA Coach of the Year. His aggressive defense and opportunistic offense gave UNCW the league lead in steals after being picked to finish ninth in the 10-team league in the CAA’s preseason poll leading up to the first season under Keatts.
“We’re approaching this thing one day at a time,” said Keatts. “It’s so early in the year and two weeks from now I’ll know a lot more about my team than I know now. I’m excited about getting started. It’s a tremendous opportunity for a lot of people and I’m just ready to build off some of that success from last year.