The first month of the 2019-20 season has been a grind for UNC-Wilmington, no question about it. The Seahawks faced North Carolina in a historic home game during the first week, took on a Davidson team with aspirations of winning a loaded Atlantic 10 Conference, and they return home from a West Coast swing at Boise State and Stanford to face Charlotte on Dec. 7.
UNCW's KenPom.com strength of schedule through the first month ranks No. 65 in the nation, with three more non-conference dates before Colonial Athletic Association competition begins at the end of December.
“The non-conference schedule is designed to help us prepare for the conference season and we'll take a lot of positives from this,” coach C.B. McGrath said following the Dec. 1 date at Stanford.
Some of those positives are evident in the play of sophomore Jaylen Sims. The second-year swingman is averaging 15.1 points and 5.5 rebounds per game through the Seahawks’ challenging, first-month stretch.
“I knew I had to step up and be a leader when everybody left [from the 2018-19 lineup],” Sims said. Of last year’s statistical leaders, UNC Wilmington lost Devontae Cacok and Jaental Cylla. Ty Gadsden has yet to play this season due to injury.
Right there, the Seahawks came into this campaign needing to replace more than 40 points per game in offense — and that’s to say nothing of Cacok’s work on the glass. Sims called the Lakers organization rookie Cacok “a monster on the boards,” and Sims said he’s taken it upon himself to pick up some of the rebounding slack.
While it’s not always a sophomore takes up the mantle as a team leader, both in terms of statistical production and setting the tone for team attitude, UNC Wilmington’s roster has a unique make-up.
“We had a core group of guys who stayed,” Sims said, referring to himself, point guard Kai Toews, and wing Jay Estime’. “Our big thing was just coming together ... making sure every guy who stepped into our locker room was a part of the team and would buy in.”
Plenty of new faces form the Seahawks lineup. Forward Marten Linssen was part of the program a year ago after transferring from Valparaiso. This season is his first competing with UNC Wilmington.
The same can be said for Florida transfer Mike Okauru, an immediate-eligible addition averaging 6.9 points and contributing to the effort replacing Cacok with 5.1 rebounds per game.
UNC Wilmington features a quartet of freshmen chipping in prominently, with Shykeim Phillips, Jake Boggs, Imajae Dodd and Brian Tolefree. Having a season of experience at UNCW under his belt makes Sims a veritable grizzled vet on this kiddie corps.
And when Sims talks of leadership, he comes from a position that belies his relative lack of experience.
“Accountability,” he said is the more important lesson for the Seahawks to take away from their challenging non-conference slate. “Sometimes you’ll get on guys, and they may not like that, but that’s the thing about holding people accountable.
“Our big thing is growth ... If I’m not doing something right, Marty [Linssen] is going to get on me, and if Marty’s not doing something right, I’m going to get on Marty. That’s holding each other accountable,” he added.
The season may only be a month in, but UNC Wilmington is seeing incremental benefit. Sims compared the loss to Davidson with the Stanford game; in the latter, the Seahawks battled throughout the second half with a team poised to be a dark-horse contender in the top-heavy Pac-12.
“We started off slow,” McGrath said following the Stanford contest. “The second half, we did a good job running our stuff, getting good shots. … [The team] saw what we can do when we run our stuff.”
The final three phases in this growth process pit the Seahawks first against Charlotte, then Mercer after a nine-day layoffs during finals week. An opportunity against another power-conference opponent, Vanderbilt, takes UNC-Wilmington into its CAA opener with Delaware.
That’s when the push to turn the learning phase into wins gets underway.
“We’re trying to get better every day, and that’s our goal,” Sims said. “That will help us in March, when it really matters.”