Seahawks hope new coach, mentality leads to wins

McLeod Brown | Sports Editor

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Three years ago, Craig Ponder entered into a program he believed had potential to surprise people around the CAA and, perhaps, on an even larger scale.

Entering the UNC Wilmington men’s basketball program in 2011, Ponder, along with the eight other freshmen in former coach Buzz Peterson’s first true recruiting class, was looked at to help turn around a program that had fell off quickly from winning their last conference title in 2006.

Instead, three years and a combined record of 29-64, including a 13-39 mark in the CAA, later, the Seahawks find themselves still stuck in the bottom of the conference standings looking up.

While the past three years have left Ponder, whom still has two years of eligibility remaining after redshirting his freshman year due to injury, and the upperclassmen of the team humbled, there remains optimism in the form of new head coach Kevin Keatts to help the veteran members close out their UNCW careers on a high note.

“Everybody has that freshman mentality going in like, ‘Yeah we’re going to just change the program completely and we’re going to do this and do that,’” Ponder said. “It hasn’t really been what I’ve dreamed of, but I couldn’t ask to be around a better group of guys or coaching staff. This year and last year, I got along with everybody so it’s been fun. I’d really love to send our seniors out on a winning note.”

For Ponder, the hiring of Keatts this past spring represents a full circle path of his basketball career, as the guard played under Keatts at Hargrave Military Academy for a year before joining the Seahawks.

Having experienced Keatts’ style of play and subsequent success before, Ponder knows better than anyone what the new coach brings to the table, and how quickly the Seahawks’ fortunes may change in the process.

“It’s a dream come true really,” Ponder said. “I love Coach Keatts, man. He’s a great coach, great guy, on and off the court. Nothing has really changed besides a couple plays here and there. But he’s still the same guy he was at Hargrave and that’s amazing to see that somebody that went so far up can still be so humble.”

For Keatts to successfully turn around a program that has experienced 20-plus losses in five of the past six seasons, he will need all the help he can get, not only from new players who he has recruited himself, but especially the holdovers remaining from the Peterson era.

Arguably the most important player who will need to produce for the Seahawks to be competitive will be senior forward Cedrick Williams.

Williams returns to UNCW for his final season after leading the team in points (11.5 ppg) and rebounds (6.6 rpg) last year. The Murfreesboro, Tenn. native found himself thrust into the focal role after star player Keith Rendleman graduated in the spring of 2013.

After dealing with double teams and increased defensive attention last year, Williams is confident in his ability to better work through opposing teams and their strategies during the upcoming season.

“Considering what we went through last year, me being the focal point of the team, I’m used to it,” Williams said. “Just playing inside my game, doing what’s best for the team, and that’s pretty much what it boils down to. Whatever I can do to help this team win, whether it’s scoring, passing, rebounding, blocking shots. We’re just going to go from there. It’s not really a one-man team or anything like that. I just want to do what’s best for this team to win.”

While Williams returns as the man in the middle for the Seahawks, the team’s backcourt is a little more muddied after graduating guards Ben Eblen and Chris Dixon this past season.

That leaves Ponder as the main point guard for the upcoming season, as true freshmen Jordon Talley and Malik Pugh are the only other options in the backcourt, something he relishes looking ahead.

“It’s really taken me back to my freshman year when I was playing the one, starting at the one,” Ponder said. “So it’s not really anything new to me. It’s just learning the new system Coach Keatts is bringing and adjusting to that as well with my teammates.”

In an effort to minimize the team’s lack of depth, Keatts has begun implementing an up-tempo system, in hopes of wearing opposing teams thin through quick baskets and pressing defense.

Many players have gloated about the effects they’ve seen so far in practice, with many adding that they feel like they’re in the best shapes of their lives.

“It’s very important to be in good condition, especially when we’re pressing,” said senior wing Freddie Jackson. “I think we’ve accomplished that. I think everybody on the team is in great condition, even down to our players who can’t play this year.”

For fans of UNCW, 2006 seems like forever ago.

Since their last trip to the NCAA tournament, the Seahawks have found themselves on the outside looking in as other programs around the CAA have risen above them.

However, with a new season comes new opportunity, and with a new coach, especially one with Keatts’ pedigree, comes a new mentality, something not only the fans, but the players more so, hope leads to victories.

“Any time you can bring a different system, and I’ve actually been there and won championships, I think that helps with these guys and opens their eyes a little bit,” Keatts said.

“All these guys would love to win a championship and so would I.”