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Coaching Candidate Profile: Will Kevin Keatts make the jump to a power-five program?

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The current UNC Wilmington head coach will be one of the hottest names in the offseason.

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret that Illinois head coach John Groce is on the hot seat. The Illini dropped another home game this past weekend to Penn State, which has the fan base growing very impatient with Groce’s failure to produce wins. Many are calling for AD Josh Whitman to find a replacement for the fifth-year head coach. Despite their recent struggles, Illinois has a rich basketball history and could potentially be the most attractive job available this offseason, given nothing shocking happens at a place like Indiana.

So who are some candidates to replace the head honcho in Champaign? As a part of our coaching profile series, today we examine current UNC Wilmington coach Kevin Keatts.


Past Experience

Keatts was born in Virginia and played his college ball at a small private university called Ferrum College, where was their four-year starting point guard. The following year Keatts began his coaching career when he was hired as an assistant at Southwestern Michigan College. In 2001 he was hired at Marshall as an assistant coach to Greg White. He remained on the Thundering Herd staff until 2003 when he moved to the Hargrave Military Academy, where he served as their head coach for eight years. Keatts led the Academy to two national championships and compiled a fantastic 262-17 overall record as head coach.

In 2011 Keatts made the jump to his first power-five program job and joined Rick Pitino’s staff at Louisville. He was apart of the 2013 Cardinals team that won the national championship over Michigan. In March of 2014 Keatts got his first Division One head coaching gig at UNC Wilmington, succeeding Buzz Peterson. In his first year in Wilmington Keatts was voted CAA Conference coach of the year after leading his team to an outstanding 25-8 record and their first conference title in a decade.

In 2015 Keatts once again won the CAA regular-season championship and Conference Coach of the Year award, leading the Seahawks to an NCAA tournament bid for the first time since 2006. They were leading fourth-seeded Duke at halftime but ended up losing by eight to the Blue Devils. This season Keatts has the Seahawks sitting at 22-5 and in first place once again in the CAA.

Illinois Connections

None whatsoever. As I’ve mentioned in previous candidate profiles, it’s not crucial that the next coach have previous ties to the Illinois program, but it certainly helps. Keatts has never recruited Chicago and if he were hired as the Illini head coach there would certainly be some (fair) questions posed about his lack of experience in the midwest and in the state of Illinois.

Three Pros

1. From the Rick Pitino coaching tree

This is a big plus. Pitino is one of the best coaches in the country, and he also boasts one of the strongest coaching trees in the country too. Billy Donovan, Tubby Smith, Jeff Van Gundy, Herb Sendek, Frank Vogel, Mick Cronin, Travis Ford and now Kevin Keatts all stem from Pitino’s coaching circle. That’s a pretty impressive list, and the fact that Keatts is the new up-and-coming name from his tree means that he could potentially see similar success like Donovan, Van Gundy, Vogel and Cronin have had.

2. Successful at every stop

He’s only coached at a few schools, but there’s something to be said for the fact that Keatts has never had a sub-.500 record in his career as a head coach. He led the Hargrave Military Academy to 262 wins in eight seasons, including two national championships in their league. His first year at UNC Wilmington was his worst record-wise, but he still managed to get the Seahawks to the postseason and hasn’t looked back since. Keatts hasn’t been tested at the power-five level yet, but his success so far has been nothing short of remarkable.

3. Hargrave Academy ties

Keatts’ time at the Hargrave Military Academy gave him several personal connections to current NBA players and coaches. Terry Rozier, Montrezl Harrell, P.J. Hairston, Marressee Speights, David West and James White are just a few of the successful NBA players that have come through Hargrave. Keatts coached some of the names listed above to a national championship, and those types of ties can’t be discounted when it comes to the world of recruiting and reputation.

Three Cons

1. Recruiting talent is unknown

How well does Keatts and his staff recruit? We don’t really know. UNC Wilmington has only gotten one three-star or higher prospect since Keatts took over the program. Every other recruit that they have signed was not rated in the Scout recruiting rankings. That’s not to say Keatts hasn’t coached solid players; this year his point guard C.J. Bryce is averaging more points-per-game than Malcolm Hill is. Still, his relative lack of recruiting big-time prospects leaves me with questions about how effective Keatts would be at getting in the living rooms of four or five-star players.

2. No midwest ties

This is probably Keatts’ biggest knock. He spent time in the ACC at Louisville, but he has no ties to the Big Ten or the midwest at all. He’s never recruited the Chicagoland area and has no ties to the rich history of Illinois basketball. As mentioned above, it’s not a necessity to have previous ties to the program, but Keatts’ unfamiliarity with the conference he’d be joining is a risk that Whitman might not be willing to take, especially if he’s looking for a long-term option for the Illini.

3. John Groce 2.0?

Keatts has compiled a much better conference record than Groce ever did in the MAC, but I think it’s fair to point out their similarities. While they both spent years as an assistant at a “big-time program” (Ohio State and Louisville), their first head coaching gigs were at smaller-profile schools. They both made NCAA tournament appearances that piqued other schools’ interest, but obviously Groce’s tenure at Illinois hasn’t worked out quite like he planned. Whitman might be leery to hire another mid-major coach who is somewhat unproven at the power-five level, especially after Groce’s failures as the head guy in Champaign.

Expert Opinion

We asked Russell Steinberg of the SBNation blog Mid Major Madness on the likelihood of Keatts being hired at Illinois:

Expect Keatts to be the new hot name on the coaching market this offseason. His Seahawks are 22-5 and poised for a second straight trip to the NCAA Tournament. Not only would Keatts bring a record of success, but he’d bring years of experience from basketball powerhouse Hargrave Military Academy — a great recruiting tie to have. While not terribly likely, Illinois could have a shot if they’re willing to spend. The former Louisville assistant could see Illinois as a stepping-stone job to something even bigger down the road.

TCR Opinion

Keatts will be the “hot new name” for any team looking for a head coach this offseason. While he won’t be Illinois’ top option, he might be a good backup candidate in case Plan A or B fails. His lack of ties to the program mean that it would certainly be a learning curve for Keatts and the staff he’ll bring with him. This name doesn’t excite me as much as some other coaches we’ve profiled, but his success is undeniable. He’s a winning head coach with a good, calm personality from one of the best coaching trees in the country. I wouldn’t be elated with a Keatts hire, but I certainly wouldn’t mind it. That being said, no offense to Kevin, but if he is hired in Champaign something has gone wrong with the first or second options on the coaching search.

Have thoughts on the possibility of Kevin Keatts? Drop by in the comments section below and let us know what you think!