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UNC Wilmington looks poised to repeat in CAA and return to NCAAs

UNC Wilmington showed that it could hang with a blueblood in last year's NCAA tournament. Can it get back to pull off an upset this season?
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Were it not for a 19-point second half by Marshall Plumlee and a propensity to foul, UNC Wilmington may have been able to deliver what would have been Duke’s third first-round NCAA tournament exit in five years when the teams met in March. Making their first appearance in the Big Dance in 10 years, the No. 13 seed Seahawks gave the No. 4 seed Blue Devils all they could handle. They held a three-point halftime lead before the defense succumbed, allowing 53 points in the final 20 minutes of an eventual eight-point loss that saw three UNCW players foul out.

This year, the Seahawks brought back four of their top five scorers from that 25–8 team, and they’re already looking like they’ll once again be tough to beat in the CAA. Overwhelmingly picked to win the conference in the preseason, UNC Wilmington hit the road for its CAA opener on New Year’s Eve and dispatched the team picked to finish second, Towson, by nine. It then came home and defeated Elon by 16 to improve to 2–0 in league play.

At 13–2 on the season (the losses being to Middle Tennessee and Clemson), the Seahawks have entered the top 50 on and are No. 19 in RPI. They boast the nation’s No. 26 offense in adjusted efficiency and are making 57.5% of their two-point attempts, the seventh best mark in the country. But the biggest reason UNC Wilmington is so dangerous is in another critical category: turnovers.

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The Seahawks employ a press defense that’s forcing a turnover on 23.9% of its opponents’ possessions, also seventh best in the country. That UNCW excels in this area shouldn’t be a surprise—head coach Kevin Keatts comes from the Rick Pitino coaching tree, having spent three seasons as an assistant at Louisville. Utilizing a full-court pressure after made baskets has helped the Seahawks force at least 18 turnovers in a game six times this season (against Division I opponents), and they also do an exceptional job at taking care of the ball, turning it over on just 14.4% of their possessions (sixth in the country).

While UNC Wilmington still has senior guards Chris Flemmings (15.7 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and Denzel Ingram (14.3 ppg, 5.7 apg) as focal points on offense, the development of two younger players has helped the Seahawks build on their 2015–16 success. After a solid freshman year, C.J. Bryce has become the team’s leading scorer and top option with 17.7 points per game, despite the fact that he’s struggled with his three-point shot. Meanwhile, forward Devontae Cacok has made an even bigger sophomore jump, going from having a small role as a freshman to averaging 13.1 points and leading the team in rebounds (9.3). His effective field goal percentage of 79.0% ranks second among all Division I players.

Like last year, however, the Seahawks still have a big problem with their tendency to foul. Their offensive and defensive free-throw rates are quite poor, even if they’ve shown decent improvement on the latter. In the loss to Clemson, the Tigers went to the line 30 times, and the 16-point gap in free throws made was larger than the difference in the final score. UNCW is not a team likely to beat you from the three-point line, making free points from the charity stripe all the more important. Two teams that could challenge the Seahawks in the CAA, College of Charleston and Northeastern, are capable of making them pay in that area.

UNC Wilmington still has a long way to go before it can try for back-to-back NCAA tournament berths, but it’d be very surprising if it doesn’t enter the CAA tournament with either the first or second seed. The Seahawks showed last March that they’re not afraid of the big stage, and they did it without a senior-laden team. Now, they can reap that experience as they gear up for the meat of their conference schedule—and maybe, eventually, another crack at an NCAA upset.


Player to Watch: Alec Peters, Valparaiso senior forward

The question of where Alec Peters would spend the 2016­–17 season was one of great intrigue last off-season—would it be back at Valpo? In the NBA? On another Division I team? After Crusaders head coach Bryce Drew left for the same job at Vanderbilt, many speculated that Peters, who was eligible to be a graduate transfer (and who would have been a highly-sought after one), would spend his final year at a school that could offer the NBA prospect more of a national platform and/or a shot at a national title. But in the end, Peters returned to Valparaiso, hoping to avenge a season that seemed destined to result in the program’s second straight NCAA tournament appearance before a crushing overtime loss in the Horizon League tourney semifinal derailed it.

The Crusaders did go on to reach the NIT championship game, collecting valuable postseason experience. And the senior is making the most of it—through 14 games he’s pouring in 25.0 points per game, with 10.4 rebounds and 1.8 assists to boot. That’s an increase of nearly seven points from his season average in 2015–16, though his shooting percentages, particularly from the perimeter, have dipped. Peters has posted five straight double-doubles, and his star play has helped Valpo get off to an 11–3 start with wins over BYU, Rhode Island and Alabama.

Game of the Week: Oakland at Valparaiso, Friday at 9 p.m. on ESPN2

You can see Peters in action on national television Friday night, when the Crusaders take on Horizon League foe Oakland. Even after losing 5' 9" star Kay Felder to the NBA, the Grizzlies are by far the biggest challengers to Valparaiso’s attempt at a third straight regular-season conference title, with junior guard Martez Walker stepping up as Oakland’s top offensive option in the wake of Felder’s exit. It will be tough for the Grizzlies to win this one on the road, but predicts a close matchup. The game is part of an ESPN2 doubleheader, with Rhode Island-Dayton kicking things off at 7, so even though there aren’t top 25 teams in action, you should still settle in for a great night of college hoops.

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Stat of the Week: 148

That’s the number of free throws that have been attempted this season by South Dakota State big man Mike Daum, which leads the country (his 8.7 attempts per game ranks third). The 6' 9" Daum was an under-the-radar redshirt freshman sensation last year for the Jackrabbits, and as his minutes have significantly expanded this season, so has his production. Besides upping his points per game average to 22.5 (from 15.2), the biggest difference in his output has been that he’s taking more threes (where he converts over 40.3%) and is getting to the line at a much higher clip. In 34 games last season, Daum attempted 176 free throws. His 148 attempts so far this year have come in just half the number of games, and when he gets there, he’s nearly automatic, making 89.2%.