Kevin Keatts deserves praise for engineering a swift turnaround in two seasons as coach at UNCW. He’s recruited players who fit his up-tempo fullcourt style, instilled them with confidence and molded them into a relentless, cohesive unit.
A stroke of good fortune has also helped.
The Seahawks are 8-2 in the Colonial Athletic Association entering a showdown for first place Thursday night at Hofstra. It's difficult to imagine UNCW enjoying this position without Chris Flemmings, a former Division II star and current walk-on, who was expected to contribute this season but has exceeded all external expectations.
He leads the team in scoring (16.8 ppg), rebounding (6.4) and has an offensive rating of 128.9 - the highest ever by a CAA player who uses at least 20 percent of his team’s possessions in the KenPom database, which dates back to 2004.
Keatts, who has led UNCW to a 34-19 record and 20-8 CAA mark, describes Flemmings as a throwback player.
“It’s actually refreshing with today’s kids to have a young man who knows how to play the game,” Keatts said. “When you talk about boxing, there’s some guys who can knock you out off of one punch, but there are guys who can beat you the whole match because they know how to box. That’s Chris. He knows how to play.”
Flemmings, a 6-5, 190-pound junior, studies game or practice clips and watches similar players on television. The preparation is revealed as the Seahawks play. He understands how to create space and angles to generate clean looks at the basket. There’s little wasted movement, and he finds the proper spot to score a bucket or scoop a rebound.
“He’s a competitor and he works on his craft. That’s the biggest thing.” Keatts said. “He’s a young man that never gets too high or too low. He’s also a player that you can put on the floor with any four other players and he knows how to play with those guys.”
Flemmings has flourished in conference play, winning Player of the Week honors twice. He ranks in the top 10 in six major statistical categories against CAA competition, including all the shooting stats and scoring which he leads with 19.3 points per game.
Flemmings appreciates the freedom Keatts gives the Seahawks.
“If you make one mistake he’s not going to take you out of the game, he wants to see what you’re going to do after that mistake,” Flemmings said. “Are you going to get back on defense after you turn the ball over or are you going to pout about it.”
During the team’s seven-game winning streak, Flemmings has four 20-point games and two double-doubles.
“I just let the game come to me and get in a flow. I don’t look for my offense as far as I have to have a set number of shots I have to take,” Flemming said. “If I’m shooting a lot one game versus not shooting a lot the next game, it’s fine with me as long as we win. I just look for other ways to get involved.
In the Seahawks 19 games against Division I competition this season, Flemmings is 70 of 104 (67.3 percent) on 2-point field goals. He’s 15th in the nation in a category dominated by big men. More than half of the players in the top 20 are 6-10 or taller and Flemmings is the lone player under 6-7.
“Even though I’m small, I like contact,” he said. “I don’t really try and avoid it at all. I just focus on going through someone. If my shot’s not falling, I don’t try to force it. I just try and go get to the basket and then come back to it.”
Flemmings weighed 160 pounds, maybe, coming out of Green Hope HS in Cary, NC, a suburb of Raleigh that’s 145 miles northwest of Wilmington. Though he made All-Conference twice for the Falcons, his slender frame scared off most college suitors.
Division II power UC-Davis wanted him to attend prep school for a year before joining the program. Flemmings settled on Barton, the 2007 DII national champion, located in Wilson just an hour from home.
He starred there for two years, averaging 19.8 points per game and earning Conference Player of the Year honors as a sophomore.
As that season ended, Flemmings and his mother, Tracey, started to consider the possibility of playing at a high level. Tracey dropped by the UNCW basketball office while on a business trip to express her son’s interest in joining the program, Keatts said, but that was before he was hired to replace Buzz Peterson.
Once Keatts took the job, he watched tape of Flemmings and liked what he saw. He offered an opportunity to join the program as a walk-on.
While sitting out last season, Flemmings gained strength, developed confidence shooting from outside (37.7 percent this season on 3-pointers) and improved his ballhandling.
During the Seahawks’ home games he studied conference opponents from the bench, observed the best players and noted what elements made them successful.
This season, Keatts brought Flemmings along slowly. He started five of the first 14 games and averaged 25.8 minutes per game, although he was often on the floor at the end of close games. The Seahawks current winning streak started when Flemmings became a permanent member of the starting lineup, often playing as an undersized power forward who creates mismatches. It’s similar to the position he played in a four-guard lineup at Barton. It’s also how Keatts used Addison Spruill last season when UNCW shared the CAA regular season title. Spruill earned first-team All-Conference honors and Flemmings should follow suit.
In the last five games, Flemmings played 194 of a possible 205 minutes. Keatts has always trusted Flemmings, but the ability to play multiple positions has made him a valuable chess piece on the floor.
“He doesn’t do anything special, he just does everything great,” Keatts said. “He knows how to play. He knows how to read people. He knows how to play off the other guys and that’s what makes him special. He’s just a basketball player.”