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ACC Preview #1 - NC State

Almost certainly the most interesting ACC team of the preseason.

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NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Clemson vs NC State Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

With fifteen teams now, we’ve learned to start ACC previews early. We always start locally and work out, and the most interesting team this year has to be NC State.

Mark Gottfried had an interesting time at State. He tended to get his teams to gel late and to be better later than earlier.

That didn’t work the last couple of years though and A.D. Debbie Yow booted him near the end of the season. As you’ll remember, Gottfried asked, and was allowed, to continue coaching his team.

Last year was mystifying. State had some real talent, most of all Dennis Smith, who has blown people away in NBA Summer League play.

Maverick Rowan had a good freshman year but his health slowed him down last year. Abdul-Malik Abu is a talented forward. So was Ted Kapita. Markell Johnson showed some real flashes as did Darius Hicks at times. Torin Dorn is a legitimate ACC player. Shaun Kirk has immense talent he hasn’t yet full harnessed.

BeeJay Anya pretty much ate himself out of the rotation, but he was an outstanding shotblocker before he got fat again.

The Pack had some fine talent, even if the team wasn’t that deep. But Gottfried could never get his players on the same page and State staggered to a 15-17 finish.

The highlight was a win at Duke, but other than that, State was a puzzle and a disappointment.

Kevin Keatts emerged as a candidate to replace fairly early. He had a nice run at UNC-Wilmington, where the Seahawks gave Duke fits in the NCAA tournament two years ago, falling to Duke 93-85. This past spring, Wilmington lost to Virginia 76-71.

He finished his three-year run with records of 18-14, 25-8 and 29-6. Overall, that’s 72-28 and a 72% win rate.

His Wilmington teams punched above their weight. It’s not easy to recruit against the power conference schools like Duke and, yes, State, but he put together a roster that was, in the words of former Clemson coach Cliff Ellis, agile, hostile and mobile.

Those guys were really, really good and he makes a lot of sense as State’s coach.

A former Rick Pitino assistant, Keatts puts an emphasis on speed and defense.

So it’s no surprise to learn that he’s pushing his team to get in better shape.

He told the Technician, the NC State student paper, that “you won’t recognize a couple of the guys” and in particular singled out Lennard Freeman, who sat out last season with an injury.

He also said that “[w]e condition a little bit more than most teams in the country and in order for these guys to play my system, we’ve got to play fast on both ends of the floor, and I think that’s been an adjustment but I will say for most of those guys it’s been a pretty good adjustment so far.”

Among the guys are returnees Freeman, after his year off, Abu, Dorn, Hicks, Johnson, Yurtseven and Kirk.

State’s lone freshman is Concord’s Lavar Batts, an athletic 6-2 guard. He had originally committed to VCU but switched after Will Wade took the LSU job.

Keatts rounded up four transfers: his old player CJ Bryce from VCU, Devon Daniels from Utah, and grad transfers Al Freeman from Baylor and Sam Hunt from from NC A&T.

That gives the Pack a roster that’s basically 10 deep. It should be enough to run his system though he’d probably like a bit more of a cushion for a fast style.

Still, there are a lot of questions. Start with this: what the hell happened to Yurtseven last year?

Keatts alluded to a crisis of confidence in the Technician piece, saying that “I wanted [Yurtseven] to have a chance to go back and play with [the Turkish national team] team and get his confidence back to a high level.”

That would be good.

He’s still highly regarded even though last year was basically a disaster for him.

If he can recover, State can pair him with Abu up front. That’s potentially a tough duo. Abu has always had ability. He’s just never fully harnessed it. He could be the prime beneficiary of the coaching change.

We’re not sure who State will start at the other forward spot - we could see a three-guard lineup. We could also see, provided he fits what Keatts wants, Kirk starting.

Kirk, remember, was a late Kentucky target. No one doubts his talent. He could find a role as a defender and rebounder.

That said, it’ll probably be Torin Dorn. The 6-5 transfer from Charlotte averaged 9.5 ppg and 4.6 rpg.

The backcourt is going to be intriguing also. Keatts has more options there than anywhere else.

Johnson showed us enough last year to know that he could be a legitimate ACC point guard. Batts is a very promising point guard as well.

When Batts signed, Keatts said in a release that “I’m ecstatic to have Lavar Batts joining our program. He is a player that we have seen grow and improve through his high school career, and I couldn’t be more excited to have him be the first recruit we sign at NC State. He is a quality young man that comes from a great family.

“Lavar is the prototype for what we look for – great character, athleticism, speed, strength, aggressiveness – in a player for our system.”

Freeman - Al, not Lennard - had a solid career at Baylor. He wasn’t great, but he was good. He improved his three point shooting every year, topping out at .389. That’s going to be an asset for this team.

Hunt, who said earlier this year that he always wanted to be an ACC player, had a miserable season at A&T with the Aggies finishing just 3-29.

He averaged 12.7 ppg and nearly 2 apg. Since he was the only legitimate threat the Aggies had, that’s not bad.

He nearly matched Freeman from deep, hitting .383. More interestingly, he hit a very impressive .937 from the line.

Counting Dorn, that gives State a potentially really good backcourt and for Keatts, that’s great news.

We remember how much trouble Wilmington gave Duke. The Seahawks just pushed Duke around in the first half. Duke won by eight, but if Wilmington hadn’t gotten into foul trouble, who knows?

That team really was built around guards Chris Flemmings, Denzel Ingram and, a name you’ll be hearing again next year, Bryce.

Those guys are from Cary, Chapel Hill and Charlotte, incidentally.

It’s going to be a time of adjustment for State as Keatts puts his stamp on the program.

Competition will start early for the Pack as State will head to Italy on August 2nd. It’s a chance for Keatts to build chemistry and trust.

One of the great shortcomings of last year’s team was defense. You can expect that to improve, possibly a great deal.

For whatever reason, Gottfried never managed to get his teams to play outstanding defense.

We’d be shocked if it isn’t improved dramatically.

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