(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

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

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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.

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.