UNCW men’s basketball season preview


Noah Powers/The Seahawk

Kai Toews and C.B. McGrath

Noah Powers, Sports Editor

Accompanied by a fresh set of faces, UNC Wilmington men’s basketball has instilled a winning mentality heading into the 2019-20 season. Head coach C.B. McGrath, who enters his third year at the helm for the Seahawks, has made it clear his team intends to win this year.  

McGrath’s first two seasons in the Port City were underwhelming at best, marking an 11-21 (7-11 CAA) outing in year one and a 10-23 (5-13) in his second year. Despite subpar regular seasons, the Seahawks have knocked on the door in CAA Tournament play.  

The ‘Hawks made it to the semifinals in 2018 before falling 79-52 to Northeastern and had a similar run to the quarterfinals earlier this year before falling 80-59, once again, to Northeastern. McGrath made it clear this year will be different.  

“There’s nobody within our basketball program, that expects or believes anything less,” said McGrath on winning a CAA championship this season. “And that’s half the battle right there. We are a group that is much more coachable and talented, and they are going to do exactly what we say, and we’re gonna get it done this year.” 

Familiar faces  

One of the biggest changes this offseason was a switch in personnel. After losing 10 of their 15 players from last season – either to graduation or transfer – UNCW was forced to bring in an almost completely refurbished roster. Currently, Ty Gadsden, Kai Toews, Jay Estime’, Brent Jenkins, Jaylen Simms and Marten Linssen are the only remaining players from last season – the latter of which has yet to play in a UNCW uniform.  

Despite having not played last season, Linssen will most likely be called upon to fill the shoes of Seahawk-great Devontae Cacok. During his time at UNCW, Cacok claimed ownership of a plethora of single-game and season records, including being the only player in NCAA Division I history to lead three separate statistical categories in three different seasons (field goal percentage, 2016-17; rebounds, 2017-18; double-doubles, 2018-19).  

“You can’t replace Devontae, he’s an amazing player,” said Linssen. “But I think we have a great team, so all together we can do great things.”  

While Linssen may not have seen the court last season, his sheer size (6’8”, 255 pounds) make him a force to be reckoned with down low. On top of that, he has also grown as a leader in the offseason. During UNCW’s first practice of the season, Linssen could be heard on the court motivating his teammates. 

“I’m trying to [step up as a leader] as good as possible,” said Linssen. “We have a lot of young guys, a lot of inexperienced guys, this is my third year in college basketball and they’re really young, so [I’m] taking a role as an older player, leading people the right way.” 

The biggest name returning is point guard Kai Toews. The sophomore ranked second in the nation in assists per game with 7.7 last season. The only player he trailed was Murray State alum and current Memphis Grizzly Ja Morant, who averaged 10 assists per game.  

Toews set the single season record for assists against Northeastern in the quarterfinals of the CAA Tournament capping off at 253. Of the returning players on the roster, Toews saw the most substantial playing time last season, averaging 30 minutes per game. He sticks out as the obvious leader for the Seahawk club and has spent time in the offseason working to improve his already impressive game. 

“Just improving on shooting,” said Toews on his improvements in the offseason. “I spent a lot of time shooting this past summer and even this preseason. And trying to step into that leadership role, especially with a bunch of new guys, and some freshmen as well. I’m just trying to step into that leadership role.” 

Welcome to Wilmington 

Over half of this year’s roster will be playing in Trask Coliseum for the first time next week. With four transfers and three freshmen, McGrath was essentially given a fresh start when it came to team mentality.  

Of those four transfers, two came from major schools. Carter Skaggs, a graduate transfer from Logansport, Ind., made his way to the Port City from the Pac-12’s Washington State. He averaged 7.1 points per game during his two seasons there.  

Also making his way to Wilmington from a bigger school was Mike Okauru. Okauru transferred from Florida after playing his freshman and sophomore seasons as a Gator.  

“I took a visit here, I think back in June, like the first time I came down here, and played pick up with those guys (the team),” said Okauru. “They were all cool. I was able to build relationships with the coaching staff. Like I said earlier, they’ve been really good with me.” 

While Okauru’s career at Florida was not stellar, it did have some shining moments including a 15-point performance in the Gators’ 108-87 win over Stanford in 2017. It will be interesting to see how well Okauru fits into the UNCW program after his experience with a well-versed major-conference team.  

“Coach said he wants me to be a scorer,” said Okauru. “So, whatever it takes to get the ball in the basket is what I’ll do.  

It was also announced earlier this month that John Bowen, who transferred to UNCW from Belmont-Abbey, would be immediately eligible instead of having to wait a year to play.  

As far as freshmen, the Seahawks have picked up a stout class of recruits. Imajae Dodd, a 6’6”, 255-pound forward, nearly averaged a double-double in high school throwing down 14.9 points and 8.2 rebounds per contest his senior season.  

Jake Boggs, a 6’7”, 190-pound guard, averaged 13 points, six rebounds, two assists and two blocks his senior year. Shykeim Phillips, a 6-foot, 170-pound guard who will most likely be filing in behind Kai Toews, averaged 16 points, 3.6 assists and three steals in high school.  

Team chemistry 

Fortunately for UNCW, the meshing of old and new players has seemed to be a smooth transition. One big reason for the smooth sailing is because of a trip to Italy the team took over the summer.  

While overseas, UNCW picked up an 85-47 win over Venetian Tigers and fell 91-90 to K.K. Kolubara-Serbia. By being in a foreign country and facing different competition, it helped the team bond. 

“So far so good,” said McGrath of his team’s chemistry. “The Italy trip had a lot to do with that. I think they got to know each other a lot more in a foreign country where you can’t use your phones 24/7 and you’re staying nine days away from home, with your teammates, so that really helped. They all want one thing, and they all want this program to be successful. When everybody’s on the same page, it seems like everything is meshing better than it has.” 

The road ahead 

To start the season, the Seahawks will play three consecutive home games of the 16 games to be played in Trash this season — tying the record for most home contests in a season.  

Luckily, the new guys will get a feel for what it is like to play in Trask early on, starting out with a matchup against Johnson & Wales on Tuesday, Nov. 7 with a 7 p.m. tipoff. On Nov. 12, UNCW will square off with Campbell, which the Seahawks took into overtime last season before falling 97-93.  

Sandwiched between those two matchups, however, is the big one — a Friday night rendezvous with no. 9 North Carolina. A sold-out affair for the Seahawks means Trask will get loud — a nice welcoming gift for the newly-acquainted portion of the team.  

Last year, UNCW made the two-and-a-half hour trek up I-40 to Chapel Hill before falling 97-69. UNC is one of three major-conference teams the ‘Hawks are set to play — Stanford and Vanderbilt are the other two.