It’s been a long time since State made a genuinely good hire in basketball. Let’s run it back a few decades:
- Mark Gottfried
- Sidney Lowe
- Herb Sendek
- Les Robinson
- Jim Valvano
- Norm Sloan
- Press Maravich
- Everett Case
Obviously Everett Case was the font of ACC basketball. Press Maravich wasn’t successful though. Norm Sloan was and so was Jim Valvano but both saw their integrity questioned.
After Valvano, the program took a massive hit. Robinson was more or less the cleanup guy and never had a chance to really compete on even terms and it was never clear that he was up to it anyway. Sendek was reasonably successful but drove the fan base insane with his boring offense and his pathetic scheduling before he finally fled to Arizona State, where he was hailed as a conquering hero before being driven away after fans tired of...his boring offense and pathetic scheduling (and diminishing success).
Sidney Lowe was beloved but failed and was let go. Mark Gottfried had some success, and recruited well, but his team fell apart in his final two seasons and now we know that there are serious questions about Dennis Smith’s recruitment and the FBI is sniffing around.
So did they finally get it right with Kevin Keatts?
Last season was a very promising start.
Keatts’ first accomplishment was to overcome the poisonous atmosphere he inherited from Gottfried. He did that well enough to upset #2 Arizona in November in the Battle 4 Atlantis.
The Pack didn’t build on it right away, losing Northern Iowa and then Tennessee, but by then Keatts had already established his program’s new identity: passionate defense, aggression and audacity. He led State to the NCAA tournament playing a very similar style that his UNC-W teams played: aggressive, intense defense and a perimeter oriented offense.
And that style didn’t work for everyone.
Omer Yurtseven had no real place in Keatts’ system and departed for Georgetown. Although he declined to be specific, Yurtseven apparently felt uncomfortable in Raleigh and feels the D.C. area is more tolerant, or at least Georgetown anyway.
Abdul-Malik Abu started behind with injuries, never really caught up and now his eligibility is expired. That’s true for Al Freeman and Lennard Freeman as well (no relation) and Sam Hunt too.
Shawn Kirk, who was once pursued by Kentucky, is now at Pembroke. LaVar Batts is at Asheville.
In fact, if you look at the guys who played for NC State against Jacksonville on December 22nd, they’re all gone except for Torin Dorn and Braxton Beverly.
Markell Johnson did not play that night and if we recall correctly, that was when he was under suspension following an alleged fight back home in Ohio.
State has quite a few new players this year:
- DJ Funderburk
- Sacha Killeya-Jones
- Jericole Hellems
- Eric Lockett
- Manny Bates
- C.J. Bryce
- Ian Steere
- Devon Daniels
- Wyatt Walker
- Blake Harris
Several of these guys are transfers - Funderburk, Killeya-Jones, Bryce, Daniels, Walker and Harris.
You can scratch two of those guys off for now too. Killeya-Jones will have to sit out as a transfer while Manny Bates is out for the season with an injury.
State’s strength will be in the backcourt. Beverly, Johnson and Dorn are all very solid and likely to start. Bryce came to NC State from Wilmington when Keatts took the job. Daniels comes from Utah where he shot very well, Lockett is a grad transfer from and Harris transferred from Mizzou.
Given that Keatts is comfortable with a smallish team, we would expect that some of the more wingishs players will spend time, defensively anyway, at forward - perhaps Dorn, Bryce, Daniels and Lockett (along with freshman Jerico Hellems, who played his high school ball at Chaminade St. Louis where he was (presumably) a younger teammate of former Duke star Jayson Tatum).
Small but interesting trivia point: we expect this is the first State team to have two Chapel Hill natives (Jones and Harris) on the roster. Beverly and Funderburk were slated to attend Ohio State but Beverly balked when Thad Matta stepped down and Funderburk was sent packing with the old chestnut “failed to live up to team expectations.” Apparently he never even played a game there.
He transferred to Northwest Florida Junior College where he was very highly regarded.
Funderburk is quite talented but whatever happened at Ohio State can’t be good. Presumably he learned from it and Keatts doesn’t seem overly indulgent. That bears watching.
Funderburk, who is a slim 6-10, is versatile enough to play anywhere but probably point guard, where Keatts most likely wouldn't want him, and center, the idea of which revolts Funderburk, who would like to wind up as a big guard.
Losing Bates will hurt, but State has a few big guys to work with. They may not be cutting edge but Keatts has typically built teams around athleticism and defense more than size and beat Arizona, featuring DeAndre Ayton, with a team of relative shorties other than Yurtseven, who didn't start (State went with Lennard Freeman and four guards).
Walker is an experienced banger who played for Samford. He’s big enough - 6-9 and 240 - to keep people off the boards and to bother big guys inside.
Even so, while he has more experience, he’s not as big as freshman Steere who is 6-9 and 260.
Steere originally committed to Creighton before changing his mind.
And if you think he’s big, look up his father. As Gaston said of himself in Beauty and the Beast, the man is roughly the size of a barge. No kidding. He could do the Hulk at a ComicCon convention. He could eat the State strength coach for an afternoon snack.
Doesn’t mean his kid can play but if not, he has a potential role in life as a bodybuilder or actor. Certainly has the genes for it.
If Keatts can get one of those guys to rebound and play defense without fouling, he’ll probably be happy. Next year, he’ll have Jones and Bates and that should be a pretty potent pair of big men.
That’s next year. This year, we fully expect the backcourt to be very tough. Keatts has plenty of guys to push his rather intense defense (as a measure of how much the ACC has changed, Duke used to be the gold standard for defense. Now arguably Virginia, Clemson and Florida State are better defensively than the Blue Devils).
The bigger issues to us are whether those big guys can deliver, how State covers the wings and how Keatts merges all of these guys who didn’t play last year.
State has a ton of questions this season but in just his second go-round, Keatts’s team is made up almost entirely of his own players. Only Dorn and Johnson are Gottfried recruits and that bodes well for Keatt’s success. It’s almost as if it never the Gottfried era never happened, although the FBI may ultimately remind us otherwise.