The rise of UNC Wilmington star Chris Flemmings, an unrecruited walk-on and Division II transfer

(AP Photo/Nick Wass)
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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.

By anyone.

On any staff.

“He recruited us,” assistant coach Takayo Siddle said.

And they are so damn glad that he did.

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(AP Photo/Nick Wass)
(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

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.

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“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.”

The result?

“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.

Carr scores 19, No. 2 Texas beats No. 7 Creighton 72-67

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AUSTIN, Texas – Texas had pressured Creighton’s shooters into a miserable night, only to watch a late flurry of 3-pointers start swishing.

An 11-point Longhorns lead was down to three.

That hardly rattled Marcus Carr and the second-ranked Longhorns, who stepped up with big late shots of their own and steady free-throw shooting to secure another impressive early-season victory, 72-67 over the seventh-ranked Bluejays on Thursday night.

Carr scored 19 points and made two free throws with 10 seconds left as Texas held off Creighton’s furious late-game rally.

Creighton struggled through a wretched 3-point shooting night, but pulled within 62-59 thanks in part to five points in a row by Baylor Scheierman. Carr’s baseline jumper and an easy layup by Tyrese Hunter when Creighton lost him on an inbound pass with 46 seconds left stretched the Longhorns’ lead again.

That didn’t quite close the door on Creighton, which got two more 3-pointers from Scheierman, who had missed his first nine attempts. That forced Texas to finish it from the free-throw line behind Carr and Brock Cunningham. Cunningham’s two free throws with 4 seconds left were his only points of the game.

“There’s going to be a bunch of times one of us has to go down there and knock down a bunch of free throws,” Carr said. “We talk about it all the time.”

The matchup was part of the Big 12-Big East Battle and Texas earned its second win over a top-10 opponent in its new arena. The Longhorns (6-0) beat then-No. 2 Gonzaga on Nov. 16 and have their highest ranking since they were No. 1 during the 2009-2010 season.

“I don’t think we’ve proven anything,” Texas coach Chris Beard said. “We’re just a team that’s trying to get better.”

Hunter scored 15 points for Texas.

Ryan Kalkbrenner had 20 points and 13 rebounds for Creighton (6-2), and Ryan Nembhard scored 17 points. The Bluejays were 4 of 27 on 3-pointers.

Scheierman, a 44% shooter from beyond the arc this season, made three 3s in a row late. His off-balance shot from the right corner over a defender pulled the Bluejays within 68-65 with 11.4 seconds left.

Scheierman finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds.

“The reality is you are gonna have nights,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “It just happens. We don’t ever want him to stop shooting.”

BIG PICTURE

Creighton: Kalkbrenner was all but unstoppable on a 9-of-10 shooting night for the Bluejays, who kept launching from long range instead of looking for their 7-foot-1 center.

Texas: The Longhorns couldn’t force their usual numbers of turnovers and fast-break points, but were exceptionally clean with the ball on offense. Texas had just three turnovers that Creighton turned into three points.

FORMER TEAMMATES

Texas senior forward Christian Bishop played three seasons at Creighton before transferring prior to last season. He finished with six points and four rebounds in 16 minutes.

“We understood what this game was, not just for our team but for Christian,” Carr said.

TIRED TEAM

McDermott suggested his team maybe just wore out. The Bluejays went 2-1 in the Maui Invitational last week and then played their first game of the season on an opponent’s home court.

“Three games in three days against ranked teams (in Hawaii) and then to come in here,” McDermott said. “That’s a lot to ask of my team.”

UP NEXT

Creighton hosts in-state rival Nebraska on Sunday.

Texas plays No. 16 Illinois in New York City on Dec. 6 in the Jimmy V Classic.

No. 20 Maryland upsets No. 7 Notre Dame at the buzzer, 74-72

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Diamond Miller scored 31 points, including the game-winner at the buzzer, to lead No. 20 Maryland to a 74-72 victory over seventh-ranked Notre Dame on Thursday night in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

Irish guard Sonia Cintron’s layup had tied the game with 15 seconds left off before Maryland held for the last shot. Miller hit a contested mid-range jumper just before time expired to give the Terrapins a victory over a top-10 opponent. It was the 15th lead change of the game.

Miller also grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds to go along with five assists. Shyanne Sellers added 17 points.

Maryland (7-2) picked up its first win over Notre Dame (6-1) since 2007.

Cintron’s double-double led the Irish with 24 points and 10 rebounds.

Notre Dame’s leading scorer Olivia Miles got off to a slow start on Thursday due to foul trouble. She scored 12 of her 14 points in the final 15 minutes of the game to go along with seven assists and two steals.

BIG PICTURE

Maryland: The Terrapins picked up their second top-20 win of the season ahead of the upcoming Big Ten opener.

Notre Dame: The Irish have had issues with foul trouble this season, a problem that persisted on Thursday. Miles played just 25 minutes, including the majority of the fourth quarter, due to picking up her fourth foul late in the third quarter.

UP NEXT

Maryland: Returns to College Park for the program’s Big Ten opener Sunday against Nebraska.

Notre Dame: Stays home to host No. 3 UConn Sunday.

Virginia’s depth helping its rapid climb in the AP Top 25

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
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The starting five is the same, but that is where comparisons between the Virginia team that has climbed to No. 3 in the AP Top 25 and last year’s NIT quarterfinalists ends.

Yes, one more year together and a trip to Italy has made the first five significantly better, but part of the credit for that surely goes to another group: the reinforcements. They’ve helped the Cavaliers (6-0) already knock off No. 6 Baylor, No. 16 Illinois and Michigan.

Virginia has scored 70 points or more in its first six game for the first time since the 2003-04 season, and coach Tony Bennett said it was the offense – and not UVA’s signature relentless defense – that saved them in a 70-68 victory this week at Michigan in the ACC/Bg Ten Challenge.

“Our offense kind of kept us in it in the first half,” Bennett said, before the team put it all together, erasing an 11-point halftime deficit to disappoint a raucous Wolverines crowd.

Reece Beekman was the offensive catalyst, scoring 15 of his 18 points before halftime, but four others joined him in double figures, including Jayden Gardner. His foul-line jumper with 39.9 seconds left provided the last of his 11 points, and the winning margin.

Gardner, who led Virginia in scoring last season (15.3 ppg), is averaging 11.5 this year.

“We’ve got a lot of capable scorers and we’re just gonna keep playing together. And we’re playing very unselfish basketball right now,” Gardner said after scoring 24 against Maryland Eastern Shore. He went into the game with 31 points through four games.

“He’s not the most jumping type of guy, but he’s got so much power,” Hawks coach Jason Crafton said of Gardner, an East Carolina transfer with 2,068 career points. “That low center of gravity and the flexibility that he has to be able to get under people and hold his position is elite. When he wants the ball at a certain spot, he can get it there.”

The leader remains guard Kihei Clark, who already has a place in Virginia history, having retrieved a loose ball and fed Mamadi Diakite for a jumper that sent the Cavs’ Elite Eight game against Purdue into overtime on the way to winning the 2019 national championship.

Newcomers Ben Vander Plas, a transfer from Ohio, and freshman Isaac McKneely have given Bennett more options, and more scoring power than a year ago.

As a junior, Vander Plas had 17 points for No. 13 seed Ohio when the Bobcats upset Virginia 62-58 in the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

He scored seven straight in the second half against the Wolverines, twice scoring inside and then swishing a 3-pointer while trying to slow down bruising big man Hunter Dickinson.

“Ben, yeah. Just his poise and composure in the post, took advantage of some mismatches and he really gave us a great lift,” Bennett said. Vander Plas is the son of a teammate of Bennett’s at Green Bay, and his first name is a tribute to Bennett’s father, Dick.

McKneely scored 15 and made 4 of 6 3-point tries in an 89-42 victory against Monmouth

“He was standing in front of our bench. I’m like, `Listen, we’re not helping off him,”‘ Monmouth coach King Rice said he told his team, pointing at McKneely, a two-time player of the year in West Virginia. “And he kind of looked at me and I said, `Yeah, you, because you make all of them,’ and he started laughing.”

Ryan Dunn also made quite the impression on Rice in his first collegiate appearance, scoring 13 points with six rebounds and three blocks in almost 27 minutes.

“I was in the building when De’Andre Hunter came off the bench and had a breakout game,” Rice said of Hunter, now with the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks. “Dunn reminds me a lot of Hunter, and you can tell he’s young. But when he grows into that body with that skill set, he’ll be giving people problems for a long, long time.”

The Cavaliers open Atlantic Coast Conference play against Florida State, then host top-ranked Houston, which beat them 67-47 last season, a week later.

“A good schedule for sure and it tests you, it kind of shows you, win or lose, you see where you’ve got some holes,” Bennett said.

So far, the Cavaliers have been able to fill them all.

No. 4 Arizona turning heads early in the season

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd knew there was talent on his roster. He wasn’t exactly sure how good the team would be.

The former longtime Gonzaga assistant had a similar view of last year’s team and that one turned out to be pretty good, running all the way to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16.

This year’s team could end up being even better.

Buoyed by transfers and improved returning players, Arizona has rolled through the early part of its schedule, climbing to No. 4 in this week’s AP Top 25 after winning the Maui Invitational.

“I learned that we’re good,” Lloyd said. “We’re tough. We’re gritty. I think there’s going to be some great things for us to really double down on and some things to show our guys where we went the wrong way.”

Lloyd had a superb first season in the desert, earning coach of the year honors last season with a team that lost three players to the NBA.

The Wildcats (6-0) had to replace three NBA players again this season. Again, they made a seamless transition.

Improvement on the part of the returning players has been a big part of it.

Oumar Ballo, considered a project as a freshman at Gonzaga, has transformed into one of the nation’s best big men. The 7-foot, 260-pound center from Mali has vastly improved his footwork and developed patience in the post, setting himself up for good shots instead of trying to bull his way to the basket.

Ballo is averaging 19 points and 10 rebounds while shooting 76.7% from the field, fourth-best nationally. He was named Maui Invitational MVP after finishing with 30 points and 13 rebounds against No. 7 Creighton in the title game.

Not bad for a player who averaged 2.5 points and 6.3 minutes per game two years ago at Gonzaga.

“When he struggled, I still believed in him,” Lloyd said. “I didn’t need for him to be instantly successful for me to reaffirm my belief in him. When he struggled, we continued to love him and work with him and then he continued to hang in there and I think it is a great story.”

Fellow big man Azuolas Tubelis has made a few strides of his own, adding strength and toughness to his athletic, fluid game. The 6-10 forward leads Arizona with 19.3 points per game while grabbing 8.0 rebounds.

Fiery point guard Kerr Kriisa has rounded into a reliable floor leader, averaging 15.3 points and 7.5 assists while shooting 51% from the 3-point arc.

“I don’t pay attention to the antics because they don’t mean anything to me,” Lloyd said. “I know maybe that draws attention to him from other people but when it comes to just pure basketball, I mean he is doing a good job and I think he is really showing something.”

So is Courtney Ramey.

The Texas transfer has given the Wildcats a huge boost in his first season in Tucson, providing hounding defense, leadership and another scoring option. He’s averaging 16 points per game and has hit 10 of 16 from 3-point range so far this season.

Campbell transfer Cedric Henderson Jr. has provided an athletic lift off the bench and 7-foot Estonian Henri Veesaar has given Arizona solid minutes.

The mix of new and old has helped Arizona lead the nation with 97.5 points a game and rank second with 21.8 assists per game. The Wildcats climbed 10 spots in this week’s poll after wins over Cincinnati, No. 24 San Diego State and Creighton.

Arizona opens Pac-12 play Thursday at Utah.

“It was good to get the recognition, but we’re not satisfied,” Ramey said. “Our ultimate goal is to be No. 1 at the end of the season and be the final two teams playing, so I think the regular season matters but it’s not the ultimate goal for us.”

The Wildcats are certainly off to a good start.

Gardner, No. 3 Virginia rally for 70-68 win at Michigan

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Tony Bennett’s team passed all its tests in the opening month of the season.

Jayden Gardner made a go-ahead jumper with 39.9 seconds left and blocked Jett Howard’s 3-point shot just before the buzzer, allowing No. 3 Virginia to stay undefeated with a 70-68 win over Michigan in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Tuesday night.

The Cavaliers (6-0) won their first true road game against a team that was ranked in the first two polls this season, a little more than a week after beating then-No. 5 Baylor and then-No. 19 Illinois in Las Vegas.

“It got pretty intense in here,” Bennett said.

Virginia trailed by 11 points at halftime, rallied to go ahead with 7:25 left and built a five-point lead that didn’t last.

The Wolverines (5-2) went ahead 66-65 at the 1:42 mark when Hunter Dickinson made one of two free throws.

Michigan missed chances to stay or go ahead when Dickinson missed a hook shot with 1:01 to go and Princeton transfer Jaelin Llewellyn turned the ball over with 16 seconds left.

“Hunter has made that running hook before,” coach Juwan Howard said. “The turnover, yes, down the stretch, it hurt, but overall that’s not the reason we lost the ballgame.

“We could’ve easily put our heads down when they came out in the second half and made a run.”

Reece Beekman, who finished with 18 points, stepped in front of Llewellyn’s pass in the final minute and made one of two free throws.

Virginia’s Armaan Franklin missed two free throws with 5.7 seconds left, giving Michigan a chance to extend or win the game. Howard took a contested shot beyond the 3-point arc on the right wing – near his father, Michigan’s coach – and Gardner came up with the block against the freshman guard while Wolverines coaches and players screamed for a foul call.

It appeared that Gardner got all ball on the block.

Kihei Clark scored 16 points, Gardner had 12, Kadin Shedrick fouled out with 12 points and Ben Vander Plas added 10 for the balanced Cavaliers.

“You need different guys, and that’s what it takes, to make plays offensively and defensively,” Bennett said.

Dickinson scored 23 points, Jett Howard had 11 of his 15 in the first half and Kobe Bufkin added 11 points for Michigan.

“Jett is a gamer, he’s going to compete no matter what,” Juwan Howard said. “He’s loved basketball since he was a little baby boy.

“He’s going to help us win a lot of games this year.”

The Wolverines started slowly, trailing 9-2 in the opening minutes, before Howard scored eight points to lead a 13-2 run. Michigan led 45-34 at halftime when Bufkin made a layup after a steal.

“We can’t be sloppy like that on the defensive end, but we did battle hard in the second half,” Bennett said.

Vander Plas scored nine points during an 11-2 run that put Virginia ahead 65-60. The Cavaliers then went 4 1/2 minutes without a basket before Gardner’s big shot.

THE TAKEAWAY

Virginia: The Cavaliers have their highest ranking since the 2018-19 season – which ended with a national title – and are off to their best start since being 7-0 three years ago. The team continues to honor the memory of three football players who were fatally shot on campus earlier this month, wearing warmup jerseys with their names.

Michigan: Juwan Howard’s team matched up well in its first game against a ranked opponent this season.

“When we come out with the effort like we did today for 40 minutes, I love our chances against any college team in the country,” he said.

UP NEXT

Virginia: Hosts Florida State (1-7) on Saturday.

Michigan: Plays No. 19 Kentucky (5-2) on Sunday in London.