Kevin Keatts talks Billy Minardi Classic

Eric Detweiler Star News Online

The planning for the 2015 Billy Minardi Classic started before the last one had even finished. After the UNCW men’s basketball team dropped a tight one at Louisville last December, coach Kevin Keatts said it was likely his Seahawks would return to KFC Yum! Center in a four-team showcase format.

Kevin Keatts will take his team back to Louisville in 2015-2016. Photo - Todd Sumlin/Charlotte Observer

Kevin Keatts will take his team back to Louisville in 2015-2016. Photo – Todd Sumlin/Charlotte Observer

The details were revealed Monday by The Courier-Journal in Louisville: UNCW won’t face the host Cardinals but will instead play back-to-back games against Utah Valley and UMKC on Dec. 22 and 23. The Seahawks won’t get the chance for an attention-grabbing upset. They’ll settle for two neutral court contests with Western Athletic Conference opponents. All three visiting teams get a $125,000 payday.

The two-day event helps bring UNCW closer to its goal of having its home and neutral court nonconference games equal its road contests. The Seahawks played three home games against eight on the road in 2014-2015 but have much more flexibility after finishing off almost all of its existing contracts.

“Certainly when you can play two neutral games in a good venue and play against two really good, like teams I think it helps you out a lot,” Keatts said.

This version of the Minardi Classic brings together three branches of Rick Pitino’s coaching tree. Keatts served on staff with UMKC’s Kareem Richardson when Louisville claimed the 2012-2013 national title. First-year Utah Valley coach Mark Pope won a national title as a player under Pitino at Kentucky.

UMKC finished third in the WAC in 2014-2015 and 14-19 overall. Utah Valley was sixth and 11-19 overall in Dick Hunsaker’s final season at the helm.

UNCW hasn’t set its full 2015-2016 schedule yet, but this is an important building block. The trip counts as two of the 11 nonconference games likely to be on the team’s slate. Add in 18 conference dates for a 29-game regular season.

Keatts is eager for the Seahawks to play back-to-back days. They didn’t do that last season before the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament.

In this format, UNCW couldn’t play Louisville because Utah Valley and UMKC are in the same conference. Keatts said the Seahawks will still play at least one power conference opponent and possibly two.

Though his team came close last time against the Cardinals, Keatts smiled and playfully squashed the notion his mentor wanted to dodge a rematch.

“Listen, they’re Louisville,” Keatts said. “I’m sure they’re not worried about whether they’re playing us or not. I was excited for the kids (last year). We played them tough, but at the end of the day, they were obviously a lot bigger and stronger and a little bit better than us.”

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