Dave Telep met Kevin Keatts in 1997. Telep was a recruiting analyst and Keatts was an assistant coach at Hargrave Military Academy. They were two guys in their early 20s, each starting his career in basketball and they quickly became good friends.
Flash forward almost 20 years and Telep is the San Antonio Spurs' draft scouting coordinator. Keatts is the second-year coach at UNC Wilmington, preparing the 13 seed in the West to face No. 4 Duke on Thursday in Providence, Rhode Island.
Keatts arrived at UNCW in the spring of 2014 after three years as a Louisville assistant and a long, successful run as the head coach at Hargrave. He’s resurrected a UNCW program that made four NCAA tournament appearances from 2000 to 2006, but suffered losing records seven of the next eight seasons. The turnaround has been brisk and thorough. He’s steered the Seahawks to a 43-22 record and a pair of Colonial Athletic Association regular season championships.
Keatts, 43, and the players spent Wednesday in Providence describing the excitement of playing Duke, the challenge of defending stars Grayson Allen and Brandon Ingram, the opportunity ahead.
Telep knows there is much more to the story.
“When you really think about Kevin Keatts, a guy who grew up in central Virginia, who is now a coach at UNC Wilmington and as a head coach he gets a crack at the Duke Blue Devils, a team that he grew up watching and knows the history of intimately. He gets to go up against a guy like Mike Krzyzewski, that’s a dream come true," Telep said. "He’s not allowed to say that because at the end of the day Duke is an opponent. But you’re talking about a guy who grew up in the region who know what that program is about … this isn’t an outsider.
UNCW had a sip of postseason success when it made four appearances in seven years. It stunned Southern California as a 13 seed in 2002 and lost at the buzzer to the defending national champion Maryland the next year. In 2006, the Seahawks lost an overtime game to George Washington in the first round.
Duke won the national championship last season -- its fifth since 1991 -- but this an entirely different team. And the Blue Devils have lost to three programs who were members of historically one-bid conferences in the last decade: VCU (2007), Lehigh (2012), Mercer (2014).
“But can they beat us? They can definitely beat us,” Krzyzewski said. “We prepare for them with that level of respect and preparation. I mean, I've watched maybe six games of theirs, and in every one they have a good verve. They play to win, and they have a style that fits their personnel really well.”
Keatts has won everywhere he’s been, claimed a national prep championship at Hargrave and helped Louisville to the 2013 title as an assistant for Rick Pitino.
Telep knows him as a coach who is authentic and has a knack for building relationships with players, instilling confidence in them and and drawing out the best of their skills.
“But then when you see him on the floor with his team, there’s a different way in which he relates to them. They allow him to coach him hard, and 20 minutes later they can be in the office talking about something outside of basketball that they need some mentoring with,” Telep said. “Kevin can coach you and counsel you and as simple as that sounds those are distinctly different jobs and to be able to blend them is a gift.”
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The players Keatts inherited at UNCW had endured a school-record losing streak the previous year, still Telep knew the results would change quickly. During their frequent phone conversations he never sensed distress in his friend's voice.
“I don’t think anything fazed him about what needed to be done. In his mind he was already a couple of steps ahead,” Telep said. “He surrounds himself with players. He has one of the best eyes for evaluating talent that I’ve seen in his profession. He’s never going to be left shorthanded. Every team he’s ever been on. He’s a talent magnet.”
Enough to beat Duke? The Seahawks play fast and free, apply 94 feet of fullcourt pressure for 40 minutes (or more) each night. They erased double-digit deficits in two of their three CAA tournament victories.
“Well, it’s tough for us, because if you look on paper, they’re probably better than us at every position,” Keatts said. “We’re smaller. I think we may be a little bit quicker. We can spread the floor. We can make shots. We have the ability to be able to switch some ball screens and hopefully disrupt them a little bit.”