Flash back for a second.
It’s February 23rd, 2022. NC State has lost 8 of their last 10 games and will lose another one later in the day. The future seems dim. The fanbase has turned on Kevin Keatts, Dereon Seabron is all but gone next year and their only recruit coming in to ‘save the day’ is 3-star guard LJ Thomas. Apathy has taken hold of Wolfpack nation and brighter days don’t seem to be on the horizon.
Ok, snap out of it.
You’re back to present day. NC State just beat Wake Forest for their 22nd win (most in the regular season since 1988). This comes on the heels of taking out rival UNC just days earlier. Jarkel Joiner and DJ Burns, two guys you didn’t even know existed last year just combined for 50 points, the Pack is a projected 8 seed in the NCAA tournament and Kevin Keatts has himself in the running for Coach of the Year in the ACC.
What a difference a year makes.
But I’m not going to let everyone forget that a big group of you were ready to cut the rope and jump ship on Kevin Keatts. Had you done that, you don’t get Terquavion Smith back. And if you don’t get Smith back, you likely don’t get Burns, Joiner, Mahorcic or Clark transferring in. You also potentially lose Casey Morsell to the portal.
Look, I tried to tell you last year that Kevin Keatts has the intangibles to be a great coach, and firing him prematurely would be devastating to the program and just staying the course would eventually prove my point.
I was right. You were wrong. Now we move on.
If you were one of the people who wanted Keatts gone, you’re fired up after that last sentence, aren’t you? You’re racking your brain looking for an angle to respond. Should you go the “‘He got lucky” route? What about the, “It’s all thanks to the assistants” route? Do what you need to do, but a little advice for you. Calm down, take the L, and monitor my columns closely in the future for errors. Then call me out. But this time. The L, please.
That said, what Kevin Keatts and NC State have done to turn this ship around has been nothing short of amazing. Everything got better.
Keatts somehow convinced Terquavion Smith to come back. He hired Levi Watkins, an alum, a hire that not only appeased the fanbase but also brought an elite PG with him in Jarkel Joiner. He then went out and got the 4-man of his dreams (Jack Clark) and 2 bigs that complement each other perfectly. While Mahorcic’s injury may have seemed like a setback, it opened the door for DJ Burns to become one of the most dominant and efficient big men that Pack fans have ever seen.
While all of this was happening, Casey Morsell was retooling and sculpting himself to become the ultimate ACC glue guy. An elite spot-up shooter, a dependable scorer, and one of the best defenders in the ACC. Reminder that Morsell shot 17% from 3 as a freshman and 26% as a sophomore. Credit Morsell for the improvements, but Keatts and staff certainly deserve some of that credit.
Let’s also remind everyone that this is Keatts year 1 without the NCAA cloud over his head. And what has he done? Brought in a bunch of elite transfers, sure, but he’s also secured commitments from Trey Parker (who is going to be the next Terquavion Smith) and Dennis Parker, another 4-star who is dominating his senior season. Oh and just a couple of days ago he got a commitment from the 32nd best player in the 2024 class, Paul McNeil.
Ok enough salt distribution, let’s just look at what is making NC State so special this season.
Last year NC State was one-dimensional. They had no true point guard. They had no scoring threat from the block. Their defense was porous.
Honestly, this year, the MVP is Jarkel Joiner. Sure Smith is the favorite to win ACC POY, but Joiner filled a ton of holes for this team. He filled the PG hole as a guy who could push the pace, score, but do so without turning the ball over. He also filled a huge leadership gap. Without Joiner, NC State still may be decent, but they aren’t the same team. His vocal leadership has changed that locker room. His confidence and strength is infectious, and down the stretch, you’re seeing that he’s the type of guy who gets better when the lights get brighter.
Then there is DJ Burns. He and Smith to me are the second most important pieces of this team. Smith is the volume scorer who puts so much pressure on the defense anytime he has the ball. Sure, his percentages are down, but his assists are way up and his ability to catch fire stokes fear in every opposing coach and defender.
Meanwhile, Burns has finally taught Keatts a lesson. In the ACC you need versatility. You need to be able to have a back-to-the-basket big man for those times when the jumper won’t fall. Now, I don’t think anyone ever envisioned Burns being THIS good, but he is and there are rumblings that he wants to come back for another season. Burns makes NC State one of the hardest teams to scout. He requires a double team, but when Clark is out there you have 4 very good shooters around the perimeter.
Look, I’m not saying they’re going to. but NC State, for the first time in my life, has the talent to win it all. Yeah, I said that. They have the talent to win it all, especially if they can get Clark and Mahorcic back healthy for the tournament.
Can’t believe I said that? Well, just mark it down as another thing you were thinking, but I said.
They have the horses, but I think the question really is, do they have the mentality and the focus to make that kind of run?
At this point, I don’t think we’ve seen them put it all together yet, but they are trending in a good direction. Last night vs. Wake Forest you got to see them clicking on all cylinders for a few spurts. You saw it during the UNC game too. Runs that are electric and can shift the score by 10-12 within minutes. Those are the putaway runs you see from elite teams that win in March.
Now, to make a run like that, you have to get hot at the right time and for NC State to go really deep, they’ll need to be playing the hottest basketball of the season. If the Wake game was any indication, I think there is a reason for optimism.
Speaking of elite teams, ESPN is now touting Kansas as the #1 overall team in the national power rankings. The same Kansas that NC State took to the wire prior to really gelling. Prior to even knowing what DJ Burns was capable of. Burns played just 16 minutes in that game and scored 8 points. Meanwhile, Kansas has struggled against bigger teams that can back them down in the paint thanks to the fact that they are undersized at the 5. If they met again, I’d say all bets are off.
Lastly, I think the truth is, you’ve seen a different Keatts this season. I think he’s shown signs of maturing as an ACC coach. The defense has been sured up and he’s got a much shorter leash on his guys this year. Less rah-rah clapping after a mistake, and more scolding. More guys getting the yank for mental errors or lack of effort. And I think you can do that as a coach when you have full trust from your kids, and everyone on the roster knows that there is one goal and no room for excuses.
Last year everyone had lost interest at this point and the stands were empty. This year NC State is selling out the Clemson game.
— NC State Men’s Bball (@PackMensBball) February 23, 2023
Last year there were whispers about finding a new coach. This year there are whispers of repeating ’83.
I’ll say it again.
What a difference a year makes.
NC State’s NET Ranking After Defeating Maryland Eastern Shore
NC State defeated Maryland Eastern Shore 93-61 last night, improving to 6-2 on the season. Ironically, they fell one spot in the NET Rankings, from 51st to 52nd.
NC State’s two losses were against #1 BYU (!) and Ole Miss (#89). BYU was a Quad 1 loss, and Ole Miss was a Quad 2 loss.
The Wolfpack currently rank 7th in the ACC.
ACC Teams in NET Rankings
52) NC State
71) Virginia Tech
91) Boston College
105) Wake Forest
107) Florida St.
159) Georgia Tech
212) Notre Dame
For a refresher on how the NET Rankings are calculated:
Using the quadrant system, which was in its fourth season in 2020-21, the quality of wins and losses will be organized based on game location and the opponent’s NET ranking.
Quadrant 1: Home 1-30, Neutral 1-50, Away 1-75
Quadrant 2: Home 31-75, Neutral 51-100, Away 76-135
Quadrant 3: Home 76-160, Neutral 101-200, Away 135-240
Quadrant 4: Home 161-353, Neutral 201-353, Away 241-353
The number of Quadrant 1 wins and Quadrant 3/4 losses will be incredibly important when it comes time for NCAA tournament selection and seeding. (NCAA)
Kansas Transfer MJ Rice Makes Quite the Impression in his NC State Debut
We’ve seen a lot of new faces on the NC State Men’s Basketball team this season, but one face we haven’t seen yet is Kansas Transfer Guard/Forward M.J. Rice (6’5″/215)…until tonight.
Rice stepped away from the program for personal reasons earlier this Fall, and when he returned, he had a little catching up to do. It wasn’t until today during shoot around that Rice and Keatts both knew that tonight would be his debut.
“He’d been practicing for the last couple of weeks, and you know, I was just trying to figure out when he was ready. He and I, we talked a little bit after shoot around today and I said ‘MJ you ready to go tonight?'” said Kevin Keatts. “and he had this big huge smile on his face. He’s like ‘You sure you ready?’ He’s like ‘Ask me some plays.’ So he and I sit over there on the scores table at the Dale and we went over plays and I was like ‘You know what, you are ready to play.'”
Out of all the transfers Keatts brought in this offseason, Rice might have the highest ceiling. Rice was a 5-Star prospect in the 2022 recruiting class, and ON3 ranked him as the #24 overall prospect nationally. He committed to Kansas, where he played in 23 games for the Jayhawks as a Freshman in 2022, averaging 2.2 points in 7.6 minutes per game. Rice was a huge pickup in the Transfer Portal, ranked as the #2 player in the Portal, with three years of eligibility remaining.
Rice also isn’t new to the area either, playing high school ball at Durham Academy, before heading off to Oak Hill Academy and Prolific Prep.
In a short sample size, Rice gave us a glimpse of what the hype is all about tonight. He scored 11 points in 11 minutes of play, also grabbing 6 boards. Rice was 5-6 from the field, and hit the only three he took. In the most electrifying play of the night, Rice took it coast-to-coast, finishing with a soaring dunk.
“He gives us another dimension. We’ve been playing with six of our new dudes. Now we added the seventh and I’m happy for him. He’s going to help us. He’s going to be really good for us.” said Keatts. “I said this on the radio just now…we’ve got some older guys, but two really good young players in Dennis Parker Jr. and also MJ Rice. It was good for MJ to see the ball going in. I think he played 10 minutes had 11 points. He made a three. He had a big time dunk, so I was excited for him.”
“He gives us the ability to play a little bit more small ball. If we have to, we can play him and Dennis Parker both at the three and four. Really good defender at that position and can rebound the basketball,” said Keatts. “It’s going to take time. I’m trying to figure out how to kind of put him into the rotation, and now we’ve added another really good exciting piece to it, but it was good to have him back out there.”
Welcome to the Pack MJ! We’re glad you’ve arrived!
NC State 93 UMES 61: BOX SCORE
Pack Insider’s Highlight Reel of NC State’s Win Over BC
Ready to watch NC State’s Men’s Basketball team play in the ‘old barn’ tonight against Maryland Eastern-Shore? Well, until 7pm, go ahead and get yourself hype by watching Pack Insider’s Highlight Reel of the Wolfpack’s ACC opening win over BC this past Saturday. Check it out above.