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ACC Preview #2 - NC State

How’s the rebuild coming along?

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COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 09 NC State at Boston College
NC State’s Markell Johnson drives against Boston College

In a way it’s hard to believe that Kevin Keatts is only entering his third season at NC State. His record so far is 45-24 (21-12 in his first year and 24-12 last season).

That’s pretty good for a program that’s still in a lot of transition. He’s really put a stamp on it.

Torin Dorn is gone as is grad student transfer Wyatt Walker, whose biggest accomplishment in Raleigh may have been posing for an artist who wanted to repair a classical statue of Bacchus. He wasn’t much of a factor in other words.

Dorn is a much bigger loss. He led the team in scoring (14 ppg) and rebounding (7.2 ppg) not to mention minutes played.

State has a reasonable core back with 6-5 CJ Bryce (senior), 6-1 Markell Johnson (senior), 6-10 DJ Funderburk (junior), 6-5 Devon Daniels (junior), 6-0 Braxton Beverly (junior), 6-7 Jericole Helms (sophomore) 6-3 Blake Harris (sophomore) and 6-11 Manny Bates, who redshirted his freshman year to recover from a shoulder injury.

State also brings in freshman Dereon Seabron (6-7), JUCO transfer Atticus Taylor (listed as AJ on State’s official site) and grad student transfers Pat Andree (6-8/Lehigh) and Danny Dixon (6-10/UMKC).

Also on the roster: preferred walk-on freshmen Max Farthing (6-7) and Chase Graham (6-1), both from Raleigh.

None of them are likely to be great but the thing that we’ve learned about Keatts is that he doesn’t need top talent to compete. We’re not saying he wouldn’t like to have it - he almost had some this year until ace point guard Jalen Lecque overestimated his value and entered the NBA draft, where he went undrafted. He did sign with Phoenix but is facing a tenuous professional life.

So what does he do with his typical squad of scrappers?

Well, scrap of course.

State’s team is going to start in the backcourt with Johnson, who at his best can be dazzling. He had one move last year that was as good as anything we saw in the ACC, period. He’s really talented. He put up 12.6 ppg last year. Look for him to really push that up.

We’d guess that Keatts would start Braxton Beverly at the other guard for his offense but Beverly comes with some limitations. He’s a real offensive weapon as Clemson learned, but at times streaky. He’s also on the smallish side at 6-0 and not a particularly good defender and Keatts is a defense-first coach. But he’s experienced and clearly he’s a gamer.

That said, he might be more valuable off the bench.

Keatts has always done a lot with mid-sized, versatile players. He could put Bryce (who followed him to Raleigh from Wilmington) and Daniels out with Johnson and have a solid start on his normally ferocious defense. We have no idea what to expect of Andree, but he’s 6-8 and has a lot of experience. He’ll help somewhere. Taylor might be more trouble than most of us expect, particularly if he can defend.

One of State’s real problems last year was a lack of size. That appears to be much less of an issue now.

Funderburke didn't have a monster season last year but he was solid and improved throughout. When State played Duke, he said he wouldn’t back down to anyone and he meant it. The kid has heart. He certainly earned our respect.

Bates sat out the whole year but was expected to give State a big boost inside. He came to the Pack as a highly regarded shot blocker. Other than maybe Omer Yurtseven we’re not sure Keatts has had a shot blocker. You can imagine how that would accelerate his pressure defense and transition offense. Our guess is that Bates would be his preference at center. Doesn’t mean he’ll necessarily start of course, but he’s probably State’s most promising interior defender.

Dixon is likely to be depth. He’s not particularly athletic and didn’t shoot particularly well at UMKC and the ACC is a whole different deal. But he could at least help in spots.

It’s an intriguing group. As we said, Keatts has proven he doesn’t have to have a roster of high school All-Americans to compete. He’s got more size and flexibility than he had last year and solid experience too. And it’s almost entirely his team: only Johnson is left from the little lamented Mark Gottfried era.

On a side note, Johnson was brought in as a backup plan for Dennis Smith, who was expected to leave (and did) after one year. How many people would now prefer Johnson to Smith? We probably would.

Last year, Keatts and the Pack took an unfair amount of heat. He lost Yurtseven to transfer (he’ll be eligible for Georgetown shortly), lost Bates to injury and still increased his win total. That got somewhat overshadowed by State’s exclusion from the NCAA tournament (the Wolfpack ended up in the NIT) and one particularly ugly game. You know what we’re talking about.

State and Virginia Tech had a major ugly fest, with Tech winning 47-24. State scored just 14 points in the first half and then went uglier in the second with just 10.

It was the butt of jokes for weeks. As Keatts said, more or less, things just happen sometimes. Quite right.

Less noticed was that in the following game State scored 96 in a loss to UNC; offense was never a particular problem again.

It was, as he said, just one of those things and not, as some fans said, one of those NC State things.

For all the criticism he’s endured, much of it unfair from a wildly jaded fan base deeply cynical after decades of letdowns and screw ups and, well, NC State stuff, Keatts has done a tremendous job. He appears to have stabilized the program and chased away the sense among some fans that it is cursed.

At Wilmington he showed he could compete with powers like Duke and Virginia and at NC State he’s shown an ability to go toe to toe with any team in the conference and usually with lesser talent.

Tony Bennett does that too, and brilliantly, but Bennett does it by slowing the game down and forcing people into uncomfortable positions and decisions, not to mention shot clock panic.

Keatts does it with toughness and heart and he’ll go as fast as you want to go.

This season should be - assuming minimal injuries - much more predictable than last year. Let’s see what Keatts does with a competent, consistent and reasonably deep rotation, along with a potential shot blocker. Can he push State’s win totals up again? It would be nice but it’s not absolutely critical. The critical things are stability and growth. If those continue, and State can hang on to Keatts (a big year would make him a major target), then NC State has a real chance at finally getting back to where it belongs: among the elite.

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