“Why not N.C State?”
These were the words spoken by new N.C State basketball coach Kevin Keatts Sunday afternoon as he was officially introduced to Wolfpack faithful in Reynolds Coliseum. Words that could not resonate stronger with Wolfpack nation. Words that validate the Mark Gottfried firing. Words that can reinvigorate a disappointed fan base.
Because at the end of the day, that’s what all of this has been about, right? What happened to the N.C State basketball fans? Those that flooded Fayetteville Street following the second round upset of Villanova in 2015, or stormed the Bell Tower after a victory over rival UNC? That passion has faded, an expected result with a team that managed to win just 9 ACC contests over two seasons, and an uninspired coach whose attitude reflects onto his players.
Wolfpack basketball needs a revival, and Kevin Keatts just might be the man who can take this program back to glory. While only having three years of D-1 head coaching experience, Keatts has a resume that is worth a tip of the cap. Keatts spent 12 years as an assistant, and eventually head coach, at Hargrave Military Academy, the well-known D-1 and NBA launching pad prep program. In his time there, Keatts led Hargrave to a 263-17 record.
Keatts then spent 3 seasons in Louisville as Rick Pitino’s top assistant coach. Keatts was a part of two Final Four teams, and the 2013 national championship Cardinals team. Rick Pitino had nothing but praise in regards to the N.C State hire of Keatts. “They’ve hired one hell of a basketball coach, because he’s absolutely great, as a recruiter as well as a coach,” said Pitino.
Keatts then was hired to UNCW, where he took over a Seahawks basketball team that had suffered 6 consecutive losing seasons. Keatts quickly changed the culture in Wilmington, installing his up tempo and high flying style of basketball into his program. Keatts won 72 games in three years, including a school record 29 wins this season. He also led the Seahawks to 3 Colonial Athletic Association regular season championships, and 2 CAA tournament championships, and NCAA tournament appearances the past two seasons.
What does this say about Keatts? Will he come in and immediately make the Wolfpack a contender again? It is certainly possible, but it is unfair to expect that. However, Keatts has already made it very clear that he is upgrading the attitude and expectations of his basketball team immediately. In what N.C State Chancellor is referring to as a “transformative” hire, Keatts is ready to give the fans a new look basketball team to be excited about again. Keatts said Sunday that N.C State will be “the best conditioned team in the country”, which will translate directly to the style of basketball Keatts likes to play. Under Keatts, there will be a lot of running, a lot of pressing, a barrage of three pointers, and the opportunity for guys like Malik Abu to lead the country in dunks. In his limited time as a head coach, that is what we have seen out of his teams. They push the ball, they don’t stop, and they get every bit out of every opportunity. This past season, his Seahawks team ranked 10th in the nation in total offense. Combine that style of play and attacking with the talent that N.C State has shown to be able to get, and you have a blueprint for a team that will have the fans salivating for next season.
Stepping into the ACC is never easy for any coach, especially at N.C State where Keatts, just 44 years old, will be playing in the shadow of basketball legends Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski. Keatts is ready for the challenge and understands the history and legacy of Wolfpack greats Jim Valvano, Norm Sloan, and David Thompson. Growing up in Lynchburg, Virginia, Keatts claims he grew up as an N.C State fan. Now whether or not he is pandering to the crowd a little bit here makes no difference to me. A lifelong basketball student, Keatts grew up in the heart of ACC country and fully understands the weight and expectations of his new position. If you’re N.C State, I don’t think that you can ask for too much more. To bring in someone who knows the region, knows how to recruit the state, and really understands the passion and energy that surrounds the ACC is a far better option than an “outsider” who may not fully understand the expectations and ferocity that comes with the fan hood of Wolfpack fans. If Keatts is really the lifelong N.C State guy he claims to be, then he knows exactly what he is getting into. Any coach who will willingly do that certainly deserves his chance.
Debbie Yow has been ripped apart over the last few months, between the decline of the basketball program, football teetering, and grumblings of a split between Yow, Doeren, the Board of Trustees and other members of the athletic department. It is not a stretch to say that tensions have grown between Yow and the school, as the end of her contract looms near. Needless to say, N.C State needed to have land a promising hire for the basketball team. This hire was swift, and effective. State knew exactly who they wanted, and hired him essentially the second they were able to. Much more satisfying than recent Wolfpack coaching searches. This in fact was not a search. It was a tactical operation carried out with precision and effectiveness worthy of praise for Debbie Yow. Sidney Lowe was a nostalgia filled move attempting to bring a feeling of greatness back to N.C State, but a coach with limited NBA experience and next to no legitimate coaching record quickly failed. Mark Gottfried was N.C State’s third, maybe fourth option, after Sidney Lowe. Former Maryland basketball coach essentially blacklisted the N.C State job, warning potential coaches of the issues of working for Yow. A personal relationship between Gottfried and Yow sealed the deal to bring the coach formerly known as the GottFather to Raleigh. But there is a reason Gottfried was employed by ESPN. The flaws in his coaching style glared through after burning so brightly early on in his tenure. This is by no means a hit piece on Gottfried, he did great things as a coach at N.C State and was able to recruit amazing talent. But once his players got to Raleigh, nothing happened. Many of Gott’s most promising players transferred away (see Kyle Washington, Tyler Lewis), and those who stuck around seemed to regress (see Beejay Anya). Gottfried failed to DEVELOP and BUILD the program to be anything more than just a school that had one prominently featured scorer destined for the NBA, and then the other guys.
Not Kevin Keatts. Kevin Keatts will be a great recruiter. Sophomore Shaun Kirk of N.C State had nothing but positive things to say about Keatts, remembering the days of the new coach trying to recruit him to UNCW.
“My teammates were trying to figure out what kind of coach he was, and I told them he’s a great guy and a great coach, too. He wants the best for you as a person,” said Kirk. After the team met and spent some time with Coach Keatts, it was clear that they had already bought into what their new leader is bringing to Raleigh.
“They told me, ‘Shaun, you were right,’ ” Kirk said. “They love him already. Not even spending an hour with him they love him to death. When you have that type of connection with a coach, from your players, a lot of great things can be accomplished.”
Keatts first task will be to make sure that he can retain the roster he has inherited, which does not sound like it will be a problem. Dennis Smith is gone, and Abu and Yurtseven are testing the draft waters. Most LIKELY, we will see those latter two players back in the red and white for next season, with Abu becoming a prominently featured player once again. Abu is the perfect kind of player in Keatts system, long, athletic, and the ability to sky. If Abu sticks around, it will give Keatts just enough firepower to make some noise next year and give us all a taste of what is to come from Wolfpack basketball.
Yes, I will always be a naively optimistic NC State supporter. I will most likely talk myself into why NC State could win it all next year. It is that exciting of a hire for the Wolfpack. But expectations are just that, and we will not know what exactly the Wolfpack have in Kevin Keatts until it plays out on the court. It may take just a little bit of time; NC State seems to have found its man. This is what this fan base needed. Something to be excited about. You better believe Wolfpack Nation will reemerge next season in support of it’s new hero.
“Why not N.C State?”
The Man of Tomorrow, The Savior of Raleigh, The Real Coach K (can we start that?), SuperKeatts is here to save all of you forsaken Wolfpack Fans!