Let’s not mince words here, NC State’s basketball season is spiraling out of control.
If you’ve been an NC State fan long enough, you know how this goes. After a few years of a new coach raising expectations, you have a down year and the calls for the coach’s head begin on social media. It’s like clockwork in Raleigh and it’s what you get when you mix a rich history, an extremely passionate fanbase heightened expectations, and a losing season. It’s what makes the NC State job a tough one but also what makes it the perfect job for an up-and-comer with confidence. Turn around NC State basketball and you’re not just another good coach, you’re a legendary figure.
Keatts was the right man for the job. He had won everywhere he had coached. He built Louisville into a national contender with his recruiting, and he believed head-down hard work is the foundation to build your program on.
There wasn’t a State fan I met who didn’t like the hire and after his opening press conference, when he proclaimed himself a winner in the third person, they were all in. This was the type of confidence they’ve wanted their head coach to exude for a long, long time. No more coach speak, finally, a coach who was willing to write checks with his mouth that he eventually intended to cash.
After three 20 win seasons and (if it weren’t for COVID) two NCAA at-large bids, it seemed like Keatts was starting to build something in Raleigh. There was a new sense of confidence running through Wolfpack nation and with one of the nation’s top recruiting classes set to arrive in 2020-21, it looked like they were about to take the next step.
And then COVID hit. And then Josh Hall (5-star commit) decided to skip college and go pro. And then the off-season was erased. And then practices were canceled, all team building activities were shut down, all gatherings and hangouts were banned. And then there were 2 COVID pauses, and then Devin Daniels went down with an ACL tear.
Now, NC State sits at 8-9 overall and 4-8 in the conference. They are coming off a 16 point loss to an unranked and struggling Duke team on their home floor, and the momentum that was being built and the confidence that was mounting up suddenly seems lost.
As expected, there is a growing camp of fans that already are done with Keatts. Ready to move on and start over. And if that sounds a little crazy, based on the progress made in the past 3 years, it is and it isn’t.
You see, this is what you sign up for when you come to coach at NC State. You’d think that a state school in the south playing in the shadows of UNC and Duke would be happy just to be competitive every now and again. But not here at NC State. In fact, Wolfpack fans are a lot like New York Yankees fans. They are the most loyal fans in the game to their franchise, but newcomers need to earn that sense of loyalty and that’s no walk in the park playing in the most cooperative conference in the country.. As I said, it makes the job tough, but it also makes the job special.
KEATTS’ PAST & FUTURE AT NC STATE
If you think it’s time to give up on Keaetts, then I’m not sure how else to say it, but you’re not paying attention. That’s my opinion, and of course, you don’t have to like it, but I think it’s valid and backed up by a lot.
It’s not that I don’t understand the frustration. I do. It’s valid to question if Keatts is the right guy for the job. He’s in his 4th year and we are seeing a major decline in the quality of basketball we’re watching. But if you’re going to just blame it all on Keatts, wipe your hands of him, and expect another coach to come in and save the day, then again, you’re not paying attention.
Let’s take a look at the Keatts years so far and give some context to our current situation.
This was Kevin Keatts’ first season. He was taking over a team that was losing about 75% of its offense. The whole starting backcourt was gone. Dennish Smith Jr went pro and Terry Henderson graduated. Beejay Anya graduated, but emerging star Ted Kapita was supposed to return for his sophomore year until out of nowhere he decided to enter the NBA draft (he went undrafted.). Well, at least he would have a true outside scoring threat in Mav Rowan! Wrong again. Rowan decided to go play in Europe.
That left Keatts with a pretty bare cupboard.
He had Markell Johnson (a backup point guard who had shown flashes of being an ACC caliber guard), Malik Abu (a bouncy forward who averaged 11 and 7), Omer Yurtseven (a former top prospect who failed to do much of anything as a freshman) and Torin Dorn (a physical, but undersized wing who faded away during ACC play as a sophomore.)
Keatts quickly went out and grabbed grad-transfer Al Freeman from Oregon and convinced Braxton Beverly to join NC State after de-committing from Ohio State. He also brought in Sam Hunt from NC A&T as a grad transfer and got Lavar Batts (an unorthodox freshman guard with great speed) to switch his commitment at the last minute from VCU to NC State.
That piecemeal team of leftovers, albeit pretty talented leftovers, ended up finishing 3rd in the ACC, reeling off 21 wins and getting an at-large tournament bid.
Keatts was coming from UNCW of the Colonial Conference. That meant his prior recruits may not have been ACC caliber, which means he was mostly starting from scratch at NC State. He knew his audience and knew that winning and winning quickly was the right path forward. Instead of getting a stable of left-over recruits, he was going to build relationships with younger high school kids, while trying to win at the ACC level with transfers. You can argue this approach if you want to, but in my eyes, it was the right move.
Keatts was in the process of this well before he set foot on campus in Raleigh. He had already gotten transfer commitments from Devon Daniels (a former 4-star scoring guard with elite physicality and strong on-ball defense) CJ Bryce (who played for Keatts at Wilmington), and DJ Funderburk (a community college star who was once committed to Ohio State. But he also had a decent recruiting class coming in.
However, out of nowhere 4-star Saddiq Bey (who is now averaging 9 points per game for the Detroit Pistons) decided to decommit and head to Villanova because of potential punishment from the Adidas wire-taps and the questions about Gottfried.
So instead of bringing in Bey, Bates, Ian Steere, and Hellems, Keatts only ended up with Hellems. Bates missed the season with a shoulder injury and Steere left the program after a few games. Luckily Keatts had filled out his roster with Wyatt Walker and Erik Lockett as transfers (both of whom played a pretty big role during the season.)
All Keatts did with this team was turn Markell Johnson and Torin Dorn into high-end ACC scorers, pull together the rest of the transfers and win 24 games. Oh and that 24 is tied for the most wins at NC State since Jim Valvano won 26 and an NCAA Championship in 1983.
Unfortunately, the NCAA had decided to implement a new NET rating during this year, and it overweighted their weak strength of schedule and excluded them from the big dance.
After losing Dorn to graduation, State was going to mostly have the same team, except they were going to get Manny Bates back. They also were bringing in 4-star Dereon Seabron and 5-star elite guard Jalen Lecque.
Only a few months before the season, Jalen Lecque decides he’s going to forgo college and go pro. Another major blow to Keatts, who was in desperate need of an elite guard to get big minutes in preparation for Markell Johnson’s departure at the end of the season. They were also told that Sacha Killya-Jones, a Kentucky transfer, was also leaving the program to go pro.
Keatts again was working with another depleted roster, but in the background, he was building relationships. Remember, this guy was an elite recruiter at Louisville and had only been at NC State. for 2 seasons. This was when you were going to see Keatts start to land the big recruiting classes, and that is what he did.
He landed 4-star PG Cam Hayes and 5-star super prospect Josh Hall. He also landed three 3-star bigs and a 3-star guard, who ended up becoming a 4-star (Shakeel Moore.). They would play big roles with next year’s team.
Meanwhile, despite an early-season injury to Markell Johnson and a mid-season injury to CJ Brucy, Devon Daniels started to become the player Keatts had hoped he’d become and DJ Funderburk became an offensive force in the post. On top of that Manny Bates was emerging as one of the nation’s top shot blockers.
Despite having to build with transfers and piece together this team. Despite losing two of your best recruits to circumstances beyond your control (Bey because of Gottfried and Lecque because of the NBA) Keatts was 10-10 in the ACC and won 20 games, with a 2nd round ACC tournament matchup with #10 Duke staring them down….
Then COVID hit…
This was the year Keatts was going to transition from a team reliant on transfers to a team that was going to start grooming their youth to be the next set of Wolfpack leaders. The Lecque stopgap was gone, so it was up to Braxton Beverly to man the point with the hopes of Cam Hayes taking the role over by late in the season. Josh Hall, who was supposed to be a big contributor this year and their star of the future, shot up the NBA draft ranks (after committing to NC State as a 4-star) and decided to go pro.
But no one was ready for what COVID brought. No offseason, few practices, no team-building activities, no team hangouts or parties. None of the things that allow freshmen to transition to college and to acclimate to their new surroundings were in place. Everything happening behind a curtain of concern and every instruction from behind a facemask.
Despite that, NC State started off hot, with Devon Daniels and DJ Funderburk leading the way. Bates was back to being a force in the middle and it seemed as if Cam Hayes was ahead of schedule. And then they were paused for two weeks with COVID protocols.
They came back and lost a sloppy game to St. Louis ( a game that was a last-minute add-in). And after reeling off 3 wins (one against #17 UNC), they lost two close games. One in OT to #19 Clemson and one to Miami. Then the wheels fell off against FSU and another COVID pause.
That was it for the Pack. they never fully got back in the swing. And then a couple of games later they lost Devon Daniels to an ACL tear.
At the time Daniels was leading the team in scoring, was one of their top rebounders, and was their on-court leader.
Keatts had to turn to. group of freshmen he’s barely had time to work with. A group that hasn’t had their peers around them getting them ready for the rigors of an ACC season. A group that simply isn’t ready.
It’s not just NC State where you are seeing this. Kentucky is struggling. UNC who is relying on freshmen guards has struggled. Duke, who relies on freshman guards has struggled. This simply isn’t the year to be transitioning to youth.
STAY PATIENT. KEATTS IS STILL IN BUILDING MODE
He came in with a bare cupboard. He didn’t want to throw away two or three seasons to rebuild with youth, and be honest, neither did you.
So he went with transfers and he found success in targeting quality transfers. He brought groups of guys from programs all over the nation, in single off-seasons and had them operating as a unit when the season rolled around.
He targeted recruits who were under the radar, yet elite athletes. Jalen Lecque was a 4-star with a questionable shot when Keatts landed him. He ended up a 5-star NBA prospect who skipped college. Then he locked down a 4-star NC kid in Josh Hall who many thoughts was too thin and too soft. He ended up a 5-star NBA prospect who skipped college and went pro.
At this moment, Keatts is feeling the effect of being ‘too good’ of a talent evaluator. It’s not like he’s targeting kids who have no chance of ever coming to NC State. He’s targeting kids he thinks are elite talents and two of them happened to not just reach that potential, but reach it so quickly they become NBA-ready before attending college.
It’s rare for that to happen, so the odds are against it happening in the future.
Next year he has Beon Pass coming in. Another unknown 3-star when he was recruited, but now an exploding 4-star averaging 30+ points per game in high school. And then there’s Terquavion Smith. A 6’4 4-star guard who has blown the doors off his senior season with games of 50 points, and who is likely soon to regarded as the best player in North Carolina. He’s got a late-blooming bouncy 6’9 big man in Earnest Ross. Go YouTube him and you’ll struggle to find highlights of him. But he’s no secret to the locals. Florida, LSU, and OK State were all on him, but he chose NC State, and now he’s seen as one of the higher ceiling bigs in his class.
Kevin Keatts has given you 20+ win seasons in his first 3 seasons. If you haven’t been paying attention to the way he did it or the obstacles he had to maneuver around to achieve that, then I’m not sure what to tell you. If you aren’t writing off this season as one lost to COVID and strange protocols, then I’m not sure what to tell you.
Kevin Keatts did what he could with what he had. He built a team of transfers and won for 3 seasons. Then, when it was time to transition to the long-game, he was hit by circumstances that ruined young teams everywhere. Instead of putting on blinders and only seeing this team’s record and then demanding a guy get fired for it, take a look at the culture of the program, the quality players he is recruiting. All of them are low-ego, high IQ, warriors. Hellems, Bates, Moore, and Seabron have already shown you. Those are Keatts guys. Give him an offseason with Hayes and he’ll be right with them. These are the guys you want to be in the trenches with and these are the guys that once they figure it out, will win basketball games.
So yeah, this season is going to be rough, but keep things in perspective. Kevin Keatts is going to be a star somewhere. He’s going to be a winner somewhere. It’d be nice if we could show some patience and let that somewhere be here in Raleigh.