UNCW’s Chris Flemmings hopes move up pays off with win over Duke

Men's Basketball vs Georgetown

It’s one thing to dream it, to close your eyes and picture the most beautiful chaos imaginable; it’s another to witness magic with your own two eyes. Chris Flemmings never forgot the vibe at PNC Arena two Marchs ago, soaking in the madness of 2014, when Mercer — little Mercer — stunned the Raleigh, N.C., locals and sent third-seeded Duke — big, bad Duke — packing.

“One of my teammates was actually on the Mercer team that won,” said the UNC Wilmington swing man, who was in the crowd to cheer on his old pal and fellow Cary, N.C., native John Mosser, then a freshman guard for the Bears. “So we also have (that) confidence going on. We don’t look at it as we’re just happy to be in the tournament.”

Why not them? Why not now? Twenty-four months ago, Flemmings was a 6-5 wing at Barton (N.C.) College, one of the shining lights in Division II, pondering his basketball future. On Thursday, his 13th-seeded Seahawks (25-7) will be dancing in Mercer’s shoes, drawing the Blue Devils (23-10) in a first-round NCAA Tournament test in Providence, R.I., pining for the sweetest déjà vu.

“I really wanted a chance,” said Flemmings, the top scorer (16.1 points per game) and rebounder (5.9 per contest) for the high-tempo, Colonial Athletic Association Tournament champs. “I saw an opportunity to be in March Madness.”

So in the summer of 2014, he left Barton, walked on at Wilmington, sat out last season as a transfer and paid his own freight. It turned out to be the best money coach Kevin Keatts never spent.

The redshirt junior made the transition to Division I hoops look seamless, developing into one of the most efficient wings on the eastern seaboard. Flemmings finished his debut season among the CAA’s top five in field goals made (173, fifth); field-goal percentage (.513, second); 2-point field-goal percentage (.631, second); free-throw percentage (.808, fourth); and effective field-goal percentage (.595, second). With a long wingspan and a quick trigger, Flemmings became the go-to rock in Keatts’ rapid-fire rotation, one of nine Seahawks to average at least 11 minutes per contest.

“I definitely thought it was a good fit,” the Wilmington guard said. “The way we’re playing, coach put me in a position to be successful. I love the press, being all over the court.”

Despite being a Duke fan, his mother Tracey loves it, too, and this chapter in the Flemmings basketball saga doesn’t really happen without her. With Chris looking for a new school and shopping for potential destinations two springs ago, fate intervened, as fate sometimes does. Mom wandered into the gym at UNCW and ran into assistant coach Kevin Easley, making a quick pitch for her son and exchanging information. When new coach Keatts queried his staff a  while later and said he needed numbers, lots of numbers, to run the pressing style he preferred (the Seahawks rank among the Top 50 nationally in per game scoring (78.1 points) and field-goals attempted (61.2), Easley remembered the Flemmings family and reached out.

“I definitely love the beach,” said Flemmings, who recorded 19 points and six rebounds in the CAA title game win over top-seeded Hofstra. “And then with Coach Keatts, after speaking to him, he just said he wants to win, whatever it takes to win. He definitely sold me on that. That’s what I wanted to do, play as hard as I can, just running, playing that style.”

As a senior at Cary’s Green Hope High School, Flemmings was light — 6-3-ish, 165 pounds — and lightly recruited by the big boys. Only UC-Davis showed real interest among Division I suitors, the guard recalled, “and they wanted me to do a year at prep school first.”

Chris wanted to see the floor. Barton promised proximity (campus is roughly an hour’s drive from Cary), immediate playing time, and a familiar playing style.

“The family wanted me to be closer to home,” he said. “I’m definitely grateful for the opportunity, but I went to Barton because I thought it would be a great (chance) to play immediately.”

Which he did, and darn well — Flemmings dominated in Division II, averaging 19.6 points and 6.8 boards as a sophomore en route to being named Conference Carolinas Player of the Year. And yet …

“I was convinced that I could play at (the Division I) level,” he said. “And my mom, my parents, did a good job supporting me. I told them I was thinking about leaving, and they definitely thought I could play.”

Of course he’s not just happy to be here. He’s thrilled.

“It’s definitely been crazy,” Flemmings said.

Crazier still: The only two times before Thursday that Mike Krzyzewski brought a Duke team to the Dance with 10 losses or more (1996 and 2007), the Blue Devils were knocked out in the first round.

Why not them? Why not now? After watching the dream, the only thing left on Flemmings’ bucket list is living it.

Above: UNC Wilmington’s Chris Flemmings is hoping that some of the magic of Mercer’s upset over Duke two years ago carries over to this year. (Courtesy UNCW Athletic Communications)

Sean Keeler

Follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @SeanKeeler.