(Updated 3/18/2017) ORLANDO – When the No. 12 UNC-Wilmington Seahawks (29-5) faced off against the No. 5 Virginia Cavaliers (22-10) in NCAA Tournament first-round action on March 16, the brightest spotlight may have fallen on Seahawks head coach Kevin Keatts, a rising star in collegiate coaching.

UNC Wilmington head coach Kevin Keatts talks with guard JaQuel Richmond during an NCCA college basketball practice session at the Amway Center in Orlando, Fla., Wednesday, March 15, 2017. The team was preparing for its first round NCAA tournament game against Virginia on Thursday. (Matt Born/The Star-News via AP)

UNC Wilmington head coach Kevin Keatts talks with guard JaQuel Richmond during an NCCA college basketball practice session at the Amway Center in Orlando, Fla., Wednesday, March 15, 2017. The team was preparing for its first round NCAA tournament game against Virginia on Thursday. (Matt Born/The Star-News via AP)

Keatts has drawn attention for his quick turnaround of the program in Wilmington. In the six years before he arrived on campus, the Seahawks were a combined 58-127. Since he took over, they are 72-27 with three consecutive Colonial Athletic Association regular season titles and two consecutive trips to the Big Dance.

While UNC-Wilmington fell to Virginia on March 16, 76-71, Keatts ended up a winner nonetheless. The day after the Seahawks’ loss, in-state powerhouse North Carolina State announced they had hired him as their new head coach, despite Keatts discounting recent rumors about such a move. According to ESPN, the six-year deal is expected to pay Keatts $2.2 million annually.

As their coach prepares for a new challenge at a new school, UNC-Wilmington players attribute the program’s turnaround to a change in attitude—a welcome departure from the previous regimes.

“Pretty much when he came in he was like, ‘We’re going to win championships so do whatever you got to do to buy in, play hard and work hard for each other,’” senior guard Denzel Ingram said.

While Keatts’ success at Wilmington may seem instant, his road to the coastal North Carolina city hasn’t been.

Keatts began his coaching career as an assistant at Southwestern Michigan College. He served two stints at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., first as an assistant from 1997 to 2001 and then again as head coach from 2003 until 2011, during which he won national prep championships in 2004 and 2008. Between his tenures at Hargrave, he spent two years as an assistant at Marshall University in West Virginia.

Keatts said he returned to the prep level after two seasons at Marshall because he missed having an impact on kids. He enjoyed prep coaching so much that he thought a long career at that level would be the end game for him.

“At Fork Union , there’s a legendary coach, Fletcher Arritt, and he just retired four years ago,” Keats said. “At one point, I thought I was going to be Fletcher Arritt and that was the best thing in the world because Fletcher stayed there over 40 years.”

However, Keatts instead received the call of a lifetime from Louisville head coach Rick Pitino, who offered him the opportunity to become an assistant coach on Pitino’s staff at Louisville. It was a door Keatts said he had to walk through.

“It’s hard to say no to Rick Pitino,” he said. “Being a Hall-of-Fame coach and all that he’s done for basketball and so many coaches and players he’s mentor. I had to take it.”

Keatts worked under Pitino for three years before being named head coach at UNC-Wilmington on April 1, 2014.

The move to Wilmington has worked out for all parties involved, and the rest of the college basketball world is taking notice.

“I’m very proud of these guys when you think about having a target on your chest all year long…and obviously winning the regular season and a tournament championship,” he said. “Twenty-nine is impressive and we’re excited, once again, about our opportunities.”

George Barnette

Special to the AFRO