After growing up just more than an hour away from the University of Virginia campus, UNC Wilmington coach Kevin Keatts watched closely as Tony Bennett turned the Cavaliers into one of the most consistent programs of this decade.
Back in the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year, Keatts now wants his players to have those same high expectations.
In a game featuring two teams with wildly different styles, the No. 12 seed Seahawks will push their up-tempo attack against the stingy, fifth-seeded Cavaliers in an East Region opener Thursday afternoon at the Amway Center in Orlando, Fla.
“I’ve had the opportunity to follow Tony Bennett and the success that he’s had,” Keatts said. “They have an unbelievable defensive team.”
He can say that again.
The Cavaliers (22-10) featured the best scoring defense in the country during the regular season, limiting opponents to an average of 55.6 points per game on 39.5 percent shooting.
Some of the box scores look like misprints.
Virginia held Grambling to 34 points in one game and Robert Morris to 39 in another. In a win over North Carolina, a team that eventually earned a No. 1 seed, the Cavaliers allowed 43 points.
“You never take it for granted,” said Bennett, whose program has made four straight NCAA Tournament appearances and advanced to a regional final a year ago.
The winner of Thursday’s game will face either Florida or East Tennessee State on Saturday.
While Virginia leaned on its stifling defense, UNC Wilmington (29-5, 15-3 Colonial Athletic Association) used a barrage of outside shooting to outscore its opponents en route to winning regular season and tournament titles.
C.J. Bryce (17.6 points per game), Chris Flemmings (15.8) and Denzel Ingram (14.5) did most of the damage from the backcourt for an offense that hit 326 3-pointers, good for 14th in the country. Devontae Cacok chipped in with 12.3 points per game for the Seahawks, who were 10th in scoring at 85.2 points per game and should be able to threaten the Cavaliers from many different spots on the floor.
UNC Wilmington put up a tough fight before bowing out to Duke in the first round of the tournament last year.
“We get a chance to play against a very good, well-coached team,” Keatts said.
But Virginia is a team that has struggled at times this season due to its lagging offense.
The Cavaliers lost four straight games in February as their offense sputtered, and the question remains: Can they do enough on that end of the floor to make a deep tournament run?
The answer to that begins with senior guard London Perrantes, who leads the team in scoring at 12.5 points per game. Perrantes is the only player who scored in double figures during the regular season and is also the team’s main facilitator with 3.8 assists per game.
“There’s so much energy and so many different emotions (once the NCAA Tournament starts),” Perrantes said. “Once the ball gets tipped, it’s just another game of basketball.”
It will be a fascinating game to watch and features plenty of questions beforehand.
Can the Cavaliers whose 9.5 turnovers per game were the third fewest in the country grind out another gritty victory by slowing down the pace? Or will the Seahawks control the pace of the game and challenge the Cavaliers to match them offensively?
Those are questions both teams are anxious to find out.
“We’re playing” Perrantes said. “It doesn’t matter what seed we are, who we’re playing against. It’s just a blessing to be able to be in the tournament again.”