BALTIMORE — The turnaround that UNC Wilmington has undergone in the two-year tenure of head coach Kevin Keatts is as drastic and as unpredictable as any coaching hire in recent memory. The former Louisville assistant, who, five years ago, was still coaching in the high school ranks, took one of the nation’s worst teams, overhauled the roster and, in a matter of months, orchestrated his first CAA regular season title.
That earned him a Conference Coach of the Year award, just like his second straight regular season title this season did. He was already one of the hotshot, young head coaches on the radar of power conference before Monday night’s 79-73 overtime win over Hofstra sent the Seahawks to their first NCAA tournament since 2006.
But the most fascinating part of their story is Chris Flemmings, the team’s leading scorer and best player: A 6-foot-5 wing that averages 16.0 points and 5.9 boards, has the ability to score at all three levels offensively and that was tasked on Monday with slowing down Hofstra’s best player, Flemmings was never recruited to UNC Wilmington.
On any staff.
“He recruited us,” assistant coach Takayo Siddle said.
And they are so damn glad that he did.
Buzz Peterson was fired four days after UNCW lost in the opening round of the 2014 CAA tournament, and it would be 16 days before the Seahawks tapped into the Rick Pitino coaching tree to hire Keatts as his replacement. During those 16 days, the Seahawk program was flapping in the breeze.
Assistant Kevin Easley, the only staff member that was retained from the Peterson regime, had just finished watching the team that may no longer be his workout when he noticed her.
“She was walking in the gym, and just kind of looking around,” Easley said. “‘Can I help you?'”
That was the first time that anyone at UNCW had met Tracy Flemmings, Chris’ mother
“My son is interested in transferring here.”
Easley, naturally, was skeptical. This isn’t an unusual thing to have happen, and when he asked for more information about her son, Tracy was as modest as she could be.
“Is he a good player?” Easley asked her.
“Yeah, he’s pretty good.”
So coach and mom exchanged contact information and Easley pushed the encounter to the back of his mind. The program didn’t even have a head coach at the time. Who was going to decide whether or not they could offer this kid a spot as a walk-on, let alone a scholarship? Who was going to make the decision on whether the kid was good enough? Hell, Easley didn’t even know for sure if he was still going to be with the program once a new head coach was hired.
Fast forward to a staff meeting later that spring. Keatts tells his assistants that he needs players. Bodies. The style that UNCW plays isn’t all that dissimilar from Shaka Smart’s ‘Havoc’ defense or the new and improved Press Virginia under Bob Huggins’. Keatts wanted his guys to pressure for 40 minutes, to be in the kind of shape that will wear down an opponents’ legs, and to do that, he needed a roster that was deep; not just for games, but for practice as well. A ten man team using that system will get worn down pretty quickly when they don’t have the subs to play 5-on-5 in practice.
“I told him I have a guy that will come and play and pay his own way and he might be pretty good,” Easley said.
“Usually, when you get an inquiry about a kid, he can’t play,” Keatts said.
“I go to the email [Tracy Flemmings sent], and I started researching,” Easley said, “and he’s pretty good. He’s averaging like 20 points a game, nine rebounds, Player of the Year in the conference, honorable mention all-american.”
Turns out, Flemmings was more than just “pretty good”. He was one of the best players in Division II basketball, a long and athletic wing that had the tools and the skill set to fit in well with what Keatts wanted his team to do.
“Once he got his release, we started checking on him,” Keatts said. “We pulled some tape on him, through Synergy and all that, and I thought he could be a good basketball player for us. We decided to bring him on an unofficial visit”
“He came the next day,” Easley said, “he committed to coming and the rest is history.”
The staff still didn’t quite know what they had on their hands when Flemmings showed up, but it didn’t take them long at all to figure it out.
“Oh my god.”
That was Craig Ponder’s reaction the first time that he saw Flemmings play. Ponder is another great story on this UNCW team. A redshirt senior guard, he was on the roster for three straight losing seasons before Keatts showed up. But he also played for Keatts at Hargrave Military Academy in high school, so he knew what the new coach would be looking for.
“The first day he walked in the door and we played pickup with him, I knew that guy could play [in this system],” Ponder said after scoring 20 points in the title game. “He was arguably the best player on the floor from the time he stepped on the court. Nobody’s surprised by his success.”
“We were like, ‘Ok. He’s good,'” Easley said with a laugh. “We didn’t realize how good he’d be.”
No one did.
In high school, Flemmings weighed 150 pounds soaking wet. He didn’t have the strength to handle Division I competition, the recruiters and scouts believed. He needed to improve his handle, his jumper. A typical late-bloomer.
“I didn’t really get looked at coming out of high school,” Chris said. So he ended up at Barton, but after winning Player of the Year in his conference as a sophomore, he decided there was a new challenge for him ahead.
“We were just looking for a bigger environment from a school perspective,” Tracy said. “Academics perspective. It just worked out that UNCW was the school.”
“He believed in himself,” Tracy added, knowing that this could end up meaning that the family would be paying three more years of tuition. Flemmings has paid his own way at UNCW the last two years. “We just supported him as parents, and we said go for it. Try and walk-on.”
Flemmings would have to sit out for a year as a transfer, but that year may have been a blessing in disguise.
“He was a good player, we had to have him adjust to Division I basketball,” Keatts said. “He needed to add weight, he couldn’t handle the basketball.”
Working on his handle was the easy part. Adding weight, on the other hand, wasn’t.
“The kid’s metabolism is unbelievable,” Keatts said. “He eats everything you could imagine.” He has managed to added 20 pounds to get up to 175, a result, his mom says, of “lots of oreos.”
“He’s the best player in the conference,” Ponder said. “He’s one of the best competitors I’ve ever played [with]. Every day he shows up to work, every game he shows up to play.”
“I haven’t had a better teammate. Ever.”
Keatts brings out the best in everyone on this roster. That’s the reason he’s widely considered one of the rising stars in the coaching business. That’s certainly no different with Flemmings, but it’s important to remember that Keatts wouldn’t have the chance to coach this kid if Tracy Flemmings hadn’t walked into the UNCW gym that day.
“I give him mom all the credit,” Keatts said with the laugh and smile of a coach that knows he can only be at his best when he’s lucky and good.