When Kevin Keatts was hired last March, NC State knew they’d be without Dennis Smith Jr and senior Beejay Anya.
They found out later that Terry Henderson, for some reason, was denied his medical hardship waiver and he too wouldn’t be around. Then Keatts got the news that Maverick Rowan was going to Europe and Ted Kapita was going to try his hand in the draft.
That left Kevin Keatts with Markell Johnson, Torin Dorn, Malik Abu, Omer Yurtseven, Lennard Freeman, Shawn Kirk and Darius Hicks. Let’s put it this way, NC State was losing 62% of their scoring from a team that finished tied with Pitt for 13th in the conference with a 4-12 record. And here’s the kicker; Gottfried’s lone incoming recruit decommitted after his firing.
The cupboard wasn’t completely bare when Kevin Keatts got here, but it sure was sparse. Not only did he barely have enough guys to field a team, but he was also adamant about implementing a new system right away.
That system would rely heavily on defensive pressure and 3 point shooting. The only problem was that his returners had shot a pretty miserable 30% from 3pt range last season and only Torin Dorn and Markell Johnson were known as capable defenders.
Had anyone told you, at that point, that NC State would finish tied for 3rd in the ACC with an 11-7 conference record and 21 wins overall, you’d have literally called them delusional and swore they knew nothing about college basketball.
Thinking back to where we were less than one year ago makes this run by the Wolfpack even that much more amazing. Keatts did go out and add some key pieces in grad-transfers Al Freeman and Sam Hunt. He flipped 2 4-star recruits and got them committed to the Pack at the last minute (Beverly and Batts). Seeing as how late to the game he was in getting involved, it’s incredible the type of talent he was able to add. But still, no one in their right mind believed that was enough to compete in the ACC.
Keatts, however, did believe it.
In one season he transformed the culture around the program. He turned Markell Johnson into the ACC’s best assist man and helped Omer Yurtseven realize his potential as a go-to scorer. He took Dorn from a tweener who struggled to find his role last season, into one of the league’s biggest mismatches, He stuck by his decision to allow Al Freeman to have an always-on green light even when he couldn’t find his confidence and he kept on plugging in Sam Hunt despite his early season shooting woes.
The expectation you have for this team, they weren’t here before Keatts arrived, he created them. He created them with wins over #2 Arizona, #2 Duke, #10 UNC, #18 Clemson, and #25 FSU. This team expects to win and in turn, so now does the fanbase.
But, none of those wins means this team isn’t flawed. The losses to Georgia Tech and Boston College showed that. They are running a system suited for a team that goes ten deep. A system that wants to be able to switch nearly every screen and have multiple guys that can guard multiple positions. A system that relies on speed and athleticism. This team isn’t really a true fit for this system, yet they are succeeding.
You always want more, of course you do, but 11 wins in the ACC, 21 overall, 5 wins over top 25 teams and a near lock for the NCAA Tournament, when you’re honest with yourself, is way more than you were ever expecting. That is not saying that this team should be content. They shouldn’t. They should wear the badge of ‘world-beaters’ from here on out because while the wins have come in bundles, respect has not followed.
The Pack didn’t grace the Top-25 once this season. Not one player from this team made 1st or 2nd team all-ACC and Kevin Keatts didn’t finish in the top two for ACC Coach of the Year. No one believed in them at the beginning, and despite their success, no one wants to believe in them now. But that’s just fine with the Wolfpack because March is where underdogs get their final say.
So as we move into the final days of the season, realize that this team is playing with house money. Most people thought this group would be fighting to stay out of the basement of the ACC. Now they are set to enter the field of 64 with absolutely, positively nothing to lose, and that makes them a very dangerous opponent.