Plenty out-of-the-ordinary circumstances shape Thursday’s Colonial Athletic Association matchup between UNC Wilmington and William & Mary.
It’s the Tribe’s first CAA game at home after starting the league slate with three road trips -- all wins, and an unprecedented start for William & Mary.
“We opened our non-conference schedule with three on the road, as well, so we were kind of ready for it,” first-year Tribe coach Dane Fischer said.
Indeed, William & Mary played, and won, its first three on the road – including at Wofford, a team that advanced to the 2nd Round of last season’s NCAA Tournament and, this year, beat North Carolina.
Four of William & Mary’s first five were on the road, including a 75-70 thriller against an Oklahoma team sitting at 10-3 and poised to challenge in the Big 12 Conference.
With Nathan Knight averaging a hair below a 20-10 double-double, this Tribe team is looking like the program’s best since the 2014-15 bunch.
Nathan Knight (@n8_knight) was one of 3️⃣0️⃣ players to be selected to the mid-season Watch List for the Lute Olson Award presented by @collegeinsider and given to the top Division I player in college basketball.— William & Mary Tribe Men's Basketball (@WMTribeMBB) January 7, 2020
📰 https://t.co/dH1i7phiXy#GoTribe pic.twitter.com/YgQ8PAQvko
“They’ve gained a good level of confidence,” Fischer said. “They’ve developed a really good trust and chemistry on the court, in some ways, earlier than we anticipated.”
Fisher’s squad is one of only two to remain undefeated in conference play. The other, Charleston, looms on Saturday. That sets up Thursday as the quintessential trap game for the Tribe, particularly with UNC Wilmington coming in winless in conference play.
The Seahawks have faced their own unique challenges on the road to Thursday’s matchup. They opened conference play with the departure of point guard Kai Toews, who opted to return to his native Japan to begin pursuing a professional career.
Toews finished second in the nation in assists a season ago, behind only the current leading contender for NBA Rookie of the Year, Ja Morant.
Carter Skaggs also transferred earlier in the season. That leaves UNCW with a roster coach C.B. McGrath noted is particularly young.
Sophomore Jaylen Sims has picked up the load for the kiddie corps at 14 points and 5.3 rebounds per game, and the Seahawks are heading into CAA play gaining some much-needed reinforcements.
Ty Gadsden made his return in the second leg of last weekend’s CAA homestand against Towson.
“We’re looking for him to take more of a role,” McGrath said, also noting that Jay Estime is expected to make his return at the end of the month. “A couple guys with experience are really going to help right now with this young team.”
Gadsden’s return helps alleviate some of the sting in losing the talented Toews from the backcourt, but in William & Mary, UNCW is up against a familiar challenge for any team in the Colonial: How do you guard a twin-tower front court with Knight and Andy Van Vliet?
In last week’s 88-61 blowout of Hofstra, the duo combined for 33 points and 18 rebounds. Perhaps even bigger than their statistical contributions, Fischer said the key to the win was an ability to keep the Pride’s offense out of the paint.
Scoring against an interior as lengthy as William & Mary’s is a tall order for any offense. For a roster rebuilding its identity like UNCW, it can be especially daunting.
The shake-ups to the Seahawks lineup do present some opportunities, however. Freshman Imajae Dodd scored eight points in the CAA opener at Delaware, and followed it up with six points and six rebounds at Drexel.
Jake Boggs, another freshman, scored seven points at Drexel and against Towson. In a fitting distilling of the growing pains facing a young team, however, he went scoreless in the Seahawks’ other two conference games.
As the CAA season evolves, so will the identity of UNC Wilmington. As for William & Mary, the Tribe will try to continue on a course with historic possibilities.