Before Brett Blizzard, UNC-Wilmington was better known as a film haven than a basketball hotbed. Before Blizzard, more movies were shot in Wilmington, N.C., than game-winning baskets.
Movies like Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Black Knight, Domestic Disturbance, The Jackal and Sleeping With the Enemy.
That started to change in 1999 when Blizzard arrived, minus acting credits, as an underrated, sharp-shooting guard from Tallahassee, Fla. The Seahawks have been making waves in the basketball world ever since.
For the third time in the past four years, Blizzard leads UNC-Wilmington into the NCAA tournament. Awaiting the 24-6 Colonial Athletic Association champs on Friday at the South Regional in Nashville, Tenn., is Atlantic Coast Conference power Maryland.
The Seahawks have gone from barely a blip on the radar screen to playing the defending national champion. That's the heady climb Blizzard has helped orchestrate during his four years in Wilmington.
"We're trying to win a couple games and get UNC-Wilmington to be known with other mid-majors like Gonzaga and Creighton," Blizzard said yesterday. "I don't have any personal goals; I just want to be part of that."
Blizzard was a major part of last year's first-round upset in overtime of Southern California, with 18 points and three steals, in the first breakthrough for UNC-Wilmington in NCAA play. Brad Brownell, in his first year as head coach after replacing Jerry Wainwright, looks back at that victory as a "double-edged sword."
"Our kids have more confidence," Brownell said. "But, at the same time, we're not going to sneak up on Maryland. Our league is right in their back yard, too. I'm sure they know about Brett Blizzard and will be eagerly preparing this week."
Blizzard is a four-time, first-team All-CAA selection, the only player in league history to accomplish that feat. He is a three-time CAA tournament Most Valuable Player, as well as the school's all-time leader in points and steals. His 367 three-pointers are the most in league history.
So how did Blizzard get out of Tallahassee and away from Florida State?
"Florida State was looking for a big man at the time," he said. "They asked me to walk on the first year and they'd give me a scholarship the second year. [But] I felt like I worked hard enough to earn a scholarship, and I wanted to go where I was wanted. UNC-Wilmington really wanted me."
Said Brownell, who helped recruit Blizzard as Wainwright's assistant: "He's been phenomenal. You can't describe it. I would argue he's the best player in the school's history."
The Seahawks' game revolves around Blizzard (21.3 points a game) and 6-foot-8 senior center Craig Callahan (16.6 points, 7.1 rebounds). They run a three-guard system that will invite the Terps to challenge Callahan on the inside.
"Callahan is probably an ACC power forward," Brownell said. "He can get by as a CAA center. Our strength [inside] is our post player can step away from the basket and shoot. We're not one of the best rebounding teams in the league."
The Seahawks surrendered two more rebounds a game than they took in during the season, but made up for it with excellent guard play and tenacious man-to-man defense. They ranked 10th among Division I schools with a yield of 59.6 points a game.
And if they have a chance to upset the favored Terps, Blizzard said it's because they have an efficient blend of skill players.
"I feel like a lot of guys are underrated on our team," he said. "We've got every kind of player, and they do different things. We have athletes, shooters, drivers and a couple of big men."
Now, they have a chance to make a name for themselves, too.
UNC-Wilmington at a glance
Location: Wilmington, N.C.
School colors: Teal, gold and Navy blue
Conference: Colonial Athletic Association
Trips to NCAA tournament: 2000 and 2002