Three years ago, UNC Wilmington was a program in disarray and in need of someone to point it in the right direction.
The Seahawks had gone through three coaches in an eight-year span after their last NCAA Tournament appearance under Brad Brownell in 2005-06. Looking for stability, they gave Kevin Keatts the keys, hoping he could revive one of the strongest programs in the Colonial Athletic Association in the late 90s and early 2000s.
Keatts’ first season resulted in a share of the regular season championship and a berth in the CIT — the first postseason appearance since that 05-06 season. He followed it up with a 25-8 year two, complete with a conference tournament championship and a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Matching up with 4 seed Duke, the 13th-seeded Seahawks led the Blue Devils 43-40 at halftime before falling 93-85 in the First Round, signaling their return on the national landscape.
With virtually the entire rotation returning for the 2016-17 season, Keatts led the Seahawks to a school-record 29 wins and a second consecutive CAA championship. Entering the NCAA Tournament as a 12 seed, the Seahawks matched up with another ACC foe in Virginia.
Despite leading by as many as 15 points in the first half, the Seahawks couldn’t overcome sterling performances from London Perrantes and Marial Shayok, as the two combined to score 31 second-half points to carry the Cavaliers to a 76-71 victory.
Keatts’ career progression had turned him into one of the hottest names in the country for higher-profile jobs. Aside from his success at Wilmington, he spent 10 years at Hargrave Military Academy with two national prep championships, then three years under Rick Pitino at Louisville, where he was part of the 2013 national championship coaching staff.
So it was no surprise when North Carolina State met with Keatts on Friday morning to discuss the program’s head coach opening, and, naturally, Keatts took the opportunity to coach in the ACC.
"I have an incredible respect for the history and tradition of NC State University, and am honored by the opportunity to lead the Wolfpack," Keatts said in a statement.
With key pieces in swingman Chris Flemmings, big man Chuck Ogbodo and guards Denzel Ingram and Ambrose Mosley graduating, and likely turnover on the assistant coaching staff as well, the Seahawks will have to rebuild.
Whoever UNCW brings in, two cornerstones will likely be back for their junior years in leading scorer C.J. Bryce and the exciting forward Devontae Cacok. Senior Jordan Talley should also return, and will likely step right into the starting five after being the first off the bench.
The reality is that the sting of Keatts’ departure in the short-term is a big blow for the Seahawk program. However, Keatts helped build a winning brand, and Wilmington can stay that way if the athletic department moves swiftly to find a replacement and keep the current roster together.
The job is certainly one that is much more appealing now than it was three years ago, and with the inside-outside combo of Bryce and Cacok, the new man at the helm will inherit a program expected to continue contending in the CAA.