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Is UNC Wilmington the 3rd best team in North Carolina?

The Seahawks are soaring to new heights under Kevin Keatts.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament- Duke University vs UNC Wilmington Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

It's no secret: the two shades of blue that travel on Tobacco Road hold supremacy over college hoops in North Carolina, and in some years, the nation.

The shift of the next tier of programs in North Carolina brings a new contender to the state’s ranks.

North Carolina State and Wake Forest are the obvious candidates for third-best team, but a few emerging mid-majors should be considered in that discussion.

Davidson, of course, is the first name that comes to mind, but lately another team has been on the rise.

The UNC Wilmington Seahawks.

The program received a facelift with the hire of Kevin Keatts prior to the 2014-15 season. After winning only nine games the previous year, the Seahawks doubled that in Keatts’ first season, surprising the Colonial Athletic Association and winning a share of the regular season title.

In his second season, the Seahawks built upon their success, matching a school record with 25 wins, a conference title and their first NCAA appearance in 10 years. In the tournament, they took the Duke Blue Devils to the wire before eventually losing.

The early accomplishments have served notice around the state, as well as college hoops in general. Still, they aren't the only team to have success, so what separates them from other North Carolina programs?

To find out, I looked at advanced stats compiled from ESPN, NCAA basketball and KenPom. All numbers are based on data collected through Sunday, Dec. 11. As much as stats are useful to gather insight, the good-old-fashioned eye test carries substantial weight as well.

WHO ARE THE CONTENDERS

The teams that could be considered as the third-best team instead of the Seahawks are:

  • UNC Asheville
  • Wake Forest
  • NC State
  • Davidson
  • NC Central
  • East Carolina

The only team from this list that could make a legitimate argument as the replacement for UNC Wilmington is Wake Forest.

However, UNC Wilmington is ranked 15th in RPI by ESPN and 10th by the NCAA, averaging out slightly ahead of Wake Forest. The Seahawks have a better overall record, but KenPom has the Seahawks eight spots lower than Wake, and their strength of schedule is separated by just four spots, favoring the Demon Deacons.

UNC Wilmington is the top mid-major team in the state at the moment. They have the best analytics compared to any other program.

KenPom has UNC Wilmington ranked 22nd in two-point field goal percentage as the Seahawks have shot 56 percent on the season. In overall adjusted defense, both Davidson and UNC Wilmington have a 99.7 rating with the Seahawks a spot ahead in the rankings. The Seahawks also take care of the basketball, coming in at 20th in turnover percentage at 15.6, while their defensive turnover percentage (23.4) percent is good for 25th.

In their lone game against a KenPom top-50 opponent, UNC Wilmington snagged a late victory over St. Bonaventure on a baseline leaner from Denzel Ingram.

The Seahawks and UNC Asheville were the only programs from North Carolina to play in the NCAA tournament a year ago, aside from UNC and Duke.

I give UNC Wilmington the current nod over the Bulldogs because, while they are playing good basketball, their SOS isn't as strong compared to the Seahawks.

EYE TEST

UNC Wilmington has shown it can beat teams with multiple styles. It has also had a balanced offensive attack and created relentless defensive havoc. Most importantly, the Seahawks have shown they can win on the road.

The senior leadership of guards Denzel Ingram and Chris Flemmings provides an extension of Keatts’ philosophy of always being in full-throttle attack mode.

Silky smooth sophomore C.J. Bryce is another scoring threat mixed with Devontae Cacok’s interior presence. UNC Wilmington also rotates a slew of perimeter players that wear down opponents with constant full court pressure and scrappy half court defense.

The lone UNC System University on the North Carolina coast continues to rise.

Don't be surprised as the season progresses if the Seahawks continue to stake their claim as not only a top contender in the state, but also across college basketball.