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Like most head coaches, Takayo Siddle of UNC Wilmington doesn’t want to spend too much time reflecting upon the past or comparing his team to any of its predecessors. But having served on Kevin Keatts’ staff in 2014-15, Siddle understands there are obvious similarities between a pair of Seahawks squads separated by more than half a decade.
A la Keatts six years ago, Siddle is the rookie head coach attempting to rapidly turn around UNC Wilmington’s fortunes by implementing an aggressive offense as well as a methodical approach to the day-to-day details of building a program and a culture. There are signs of rapid progress and indications that players worn down by the losing they endured earlier in their careers are finding the confidence necessary to exceed their previous individual and collective achievements, as well as small steps backwards and reminders by the head coach there’s still a long way to go before he, and they, should be satisfied.
And, of course, there’s the ice cream.
Just as they were under Keatts during his three-year reign, Siddle’s Seahawks are rewarded with ice cream following a win away from Trask Coliseum. UNC Wilmington is 4-3 away from home.
It’s a pretty simple thing, but it provides players a tangible reward and the CAA’s most enthusiastic fanbase a way to measure in and enjoy the team’s progress.
“You’ve got to keep it fun for these guys,” Siddle said this week. “What better way to celebrate a hard-fought win on the road than with some cold ice cream? Everybody loves ice cream.”
Of course, if building a winning college basketball program was as simple as offering ice cream, we’d all be national championship-winning head coaches. The path to postgame ice cream is long and lacking in glamour, but it’s the one Siddle knows he has to travel after working with Keatts to dig the Seahawks out of one of the biggest ruts in program history. UNC Wilmington, which had seven losing seasons in the eight seasons prior to Keatts’ arrival, earned a share of the regular season championship in his first year at the helm in 2014-15 before winning back-to-back CAA titles in his final two seasons.
The Seahawks quickly backslid after Keatts exited for North Carolina State. Siddle briefly replaced Keatts as the interim head coach but joined Keatts in Raleigh after UNC Wilmington hired former North Carolina assistant coach C.B. McGrath, who went 26-58 before being fired in January.
Some observers wondered if McGrath, who played under Roy Williams at Kansas before spending his entire coaching career with Williams at Kansas and North Carolina, fully understood the grind associated with the mid-major life. There’d be no such concerns with Siddle.
“Just an everyday mentality — coming in, punching the clock and doing all the right things on and off the court,” Siddle said. “We talk about winning the day a lot around here. And that’s just waking up and getting some breakfast and going to class and going to treatment, getting to your meetings on time and making sure you’re getting all your meals and making sure you’re going to weights, punching a clock in practice and doing rehab after practice — just doing the process of the day well and what it takes on a daily basis to be able to do that at a high level consistently, is what I’ve been focusing on. And that’s what I learned from when we did it the first time, just the overall mentality and just embracing the process.”
As Keatts did in 2014-15, Siddle has used an aggressive non-conference slate to build a base for the Seahawks. Siddle is scheduling in the midst of a pandemic, so he hasn’t been able to travel the country facing power 5 and high mid-major foes.
UNC Wilmington fell to four top-100 KenPom.com opponents in Keatts’ first year, including Louisville, where Keatts served as an assistant under Rick Pitino, and Minnesota, coached by Pitino’s son, Richard. The Seahawks, who were picked to finish ninth in the CAA preseason poll, raced out to a 7-2 start in league play before finishing in a four-way tie for first place at 12-6 and eventually playing in the CollegeInsider.com tournament.
But these Seahawks went 6-3 in non-conference play, which ended today with an 87-63 win over Delaware State. (It was a home game, so no ice cream afterward.) The nine non-league games are by far the most for any CAA school, and Siddle was able to fill the schedule while taking just one trip outside the mid-Atlantic. UNC Wilmington fell to Mississippi, 78-58, on Dec. 12.
“We didn’t have a summer,” Siddle said. “The things that I was trying to get out of their system and the things I was still trying to get out of their system a month ago — I would have gotten that out in the summertime. So these games are important for us. I think we are taking some steps forward. We’re getting better on a daily basis and our guys, to a man, they are locked in and they are hungry for more.”
The Seahawks, who were also picked ninth this season, are more than a week away from beginning to find out if they can produce a CAA surge like the one Keatts oversaw in 2014-15. But there is already evidence of a similar transformation taking place.
Keatts’ first team featured a trio of leading scorers — Addison Spruill (14.2 ppg), Freddie Jackson (13.3 ppg) and Craig Ponder (11.6 ppg) — who all dramatically increased their output from the previous season. Spruill averaged 9.3 ppg in 2013-14 while Jackson averaged 7.3 ppg and Ponder scored 4.4 ppg.
In addition, UNC Wilmington enjoyed sharp improvements in overall shooting (from 40.2 percent overall and 27.3 percent beyond the arc in 2013-14 to 44.2 percent and 34.8 percent, respectively, in 2014-15) while getting to the line more frequently. The Seahawks attempted 71 more free throws in 2014-15 (677) than in 2013-14.
Through nine games this year, the Seahawks have five double-digit scorers in returnees Jaylen Sims (19.3 ppg) Ty Gadsden (16.9 ppg), Mike Okauru (11.1 ppg) and Jake Boggs (11.0 ppg) and Holy Cross transfer Joe Pridgen (13.2 ppg), the latter of whom missed the first four games while waiting for the NCAA to approve a waiver but has four double-doubles in his first six games with UNC Wilmington. Among the returnees, only Sims (11.8 ppg) and Gadsden (10.6 ppg) averaged double figures last season.
And just like under Keatts in 2014-15, the Seahawks are shooting better from the field and getting to the line with a renewed regularity than they did the previous season. UNC Wilmington shot 43.1 percent from the field and 34.1 percent from 3-point land while averaging 18.2 free throws per game last season.
The figures thus far this season: 45.8 percent from the field, 37.2 percent from beyond the arc and 24.9 free throws per game.
“I think our player development is what sets us apart,” Siddle said. “We do individual workouts. In-season, we do them three or four times a week. Guys are getting 100-plus, 150-plus makes up a day at a game pace. We spend time shooting free throws, individuals and in practice. And when you talk about our attack, we want to attack inside out. I think our ability to get to the point and play from there creates so much offense for us. It creates rhythm shots for our perimeter players, it creates angles to get to the rim for us to get to the free throw line. So if we can keep that mentality up of playing inside out, I like where we’re going.”
As encouraging as the non-conference season has been for the Seahawks, Siddle understands it won’t be a linear path to contention and beyond. Sims has looked like an early contender for CAA Player of the Year honors, but he came off the bench Monday (when he had 15 points and nine rebounds and punctuated a coast-to-coast trip with a thunderous lane-driving drunk) because Siddle wasn’t thrilled with his performance on the defensive end.
League play, especially in a 2020-21 season filled with back-to-back games, will also present a different challenge for the Seahawks, even if Siddle is certain they’ll exceed expectations.
“I think they picked us eighth out of 10, something like that — we definitely won’t finish eighth out of 10,” Siddle said. “I think we’re way better than what people give us credit for. But we still have a long way to go and we’ve got to keep in mind that these guys, this program, lost for three years. So they need to get an early taste of what it is to win some conference games. And it’ll be a different type of focus that I’ll have to implement with the program, with those guys.”
And if the Seahawks end up eating lots of ice cream on the road and heading to Washington D.C. as one of the favorites to win the tournament in early March? Despite the similarities to Keatts’ first team, they’ll have done it their — and Siddle’s — own way.
“I don’t want to put that type of pressure on my guys, talking about what we were able to do with that team,” Siddle said. “I want our guys to continue to form their own identity and we’re going to do it the way I want to do it. I want to put my stamp on a program and I want my guys to be excited about what they’re doing versus trying to live up to an expectation that people around the program or the perspective around the program to be like that other team. I don’t want to do that to them. I like what we’re doing right now.”
Jerry Beach has covered Hofstra sports since arriving on campus in the fall of 1993, when Wayne Chrebet was a junior wide receiver wearing No. 3, Butch van Breda Kolff was the men’s basketball coach for the East Coast Conference champions and Jay Wright was a little-known yet surely well-dressed UNLV assistant coach. Check out Jerry’s book about the 2000 World Series here and follow him on Twitter at @JerryBeach73.