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ACC Preview #3 - NC State. Is The Pack Back?

At a minimum, they should be improved.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 02 NC State at Wake Forest
Contrary to popular opinion in and around Raleigh, Keatts doesn’t sit like that because he wants to avoid the hot seat.
Photo by Nicholas Faulkner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Several years ago, when ACC Basketball was in the doldrums, we said that it would get better only when the coaching got better.

Well look around. Boston College? Better. Pitt? Work to do, but unquestionably an improvement over Kevin Stallings vandalization of a solid program. Wake Forest? Vastly better. Virginia? Try home run better.

And NC State?

That’s a tough one.

When Kevin Keatts took the job, we were excited. He had UNC-Wilmington punching way above its weight, even pushing Duke and Virginia in the NCAA tournament. He had a knack for finding tough, under appreciated players and turning them into a powerful group.

He’s been less successful in the City of Oaks, however.

On the plus side, he’s had the Pack in the post-season every year except for Year Covid and last season. His overall record is 90—68 which ain’t bad. Maybe not great, but clearly, he’s no Kevin Stallings. Sidney Lowe would have crawled over Mrs. Sloan to have had that record. Herb Sendek would have killed for the relatively pleasant reception Keatts has gotten.

Two years ago though, the Wuffies were 14-11 and last year a miserable 11-21 and the grumbling has started although, again, Sendek would have loved the muted reaction.

After the season, State AD Boo Corrigan endorsed Keatts and he’s still his coach. So will this be a bounce-back season?

He won’t have Dereon Seabron, Jericole Hellems, Cam Hayes, Manny Bates, Jaylon Gibson or Thomas Allen around anymore (if you added a Nixonian flair to that, you might be a boomer). Seabron is with the New Orleans Pelicans, Hellem is trying to hook on with a team, while Hayes, Bates and Allen transferred.

Bates played one minute - just one! - last season before suffering another shoulder injury. He’s at Butler and presumably hopes to shoulder more pleasant burdens. Hayes is at LSU where new coach Matt McMahon had to rebuild the roster on the fly last spring, so he should get minutes. Allen is at Ball State while Gibson chose Winston-Salem State.

Is the cupboard bare?

Well that depends.

Sophomore Terquavion Smith came back when he could have gone on to the NBA as he really made a solid impression. At 6-4 and 160 he could use some weight but he has elite talent and definitely could have stayed in the draft had he so chosen. He has a shot at ACC Player Of The Year this season.

Sophomore Ebenezer Dowuona (6-11/225) was forced into action when injuries decimated State’s big men, playing 24.5 mpg. He had his moments, but struggled with fouls. He came to the US with his brothers after only playing for three months. He was 12.

Let that sink in in case you’re inclined to boo him. It’s an amazingly brave thing to do.

He seemed like a guy State was hoping to bring along but things change and he was thrown into the fire. He should be better for it.

Breon Pass (6-0/175), also a sophomore, was a tremendous high school athlete who didn’t have a huge impact last season, but never bet against talent. He may yet turn out and Keatts does have a knack for spotting young talent that improves.

The last sophomore, 6-9 Ernest Ross, had some flashes but only played 14 games due to an ankle injury. In his last five games, he shot 8-11, had 12 boards and four blocks.

Casey Morsell, a 6-3 senior who transferred from Virginia, ended up playing 24.3 mpg but was not a huge factor, at least not statistically. He might have played less if there weren’t so many injuries.

Gregg Gant, a 6-8 redshirt junior who transferred in from Providence, wasn’t a factor at all: he had surgery for a hernia and missed the entire season. State took a tour of the Bahamas this summer, but he had to sit out with a sprained left thumb.

Gant and Bates combined to play one minute last season, which is pretty good shorthand for why the team struggled so. Toss in Ross and that’s three front court rotation players who played for 100 minutes, and 99 of them were Ross’s.

So who’s new? Let’s look at transfers first.

Jarkel Joiner, a 6-1 grad student, is in from Ole Miss and says he wants to play in the NCAA tournament. He’s a likely starter and had some great moments at Mississippi, averaging 13.8 points per game. He racked up 33 against Alabama and 20 vs. Memphis so clearly he can play. He was slowed by a back injury last season, however.

Jack Clark (6-8/220), another grad student, comes over from LaSalle. He had a weird shooting trajectory, peaking out in his freshman year at 41.2 percent overall and 41 percent from threes. As a sophomore, those fell to 39.4 and 27.6 percent, and last year 38.4 and 29.8 percent.

Could he get back to his freshman level? Maybe. He was one of LaSalle’s leading options all three seasons but the Explorers struggled all three too. With more options, he’ll face less pressure. At a minimum, we expect he’ll go nuts a couple of times this season and people will go Jack Who?

You heard it here first.

DJ Burns, yet another grad student from Winthrop, is a great big big. At 6-9 and 275, he may not be hugely athletic, but he’s tremendously powerful. No one is going to push him around in the paint. Keatts says he’s also pretty nimble for a guy that size.

To give you an indication of how time slips by, he was the third-rated player in South Carolina his senior year behind Zion Williamson and Ja Morant.

But the transfer who we really, really find intriguing, is 6-10 Dusan Mahorcic, a grad student (last one, we promise) transfer from Utah. He’s on his fifth school, which is kind of amazing (Lewis College/Moberly Area CC/Illinois State/Utah/NC State). He didn’t have a great season at Utah for two reasons: first, he had an injury in late September (should fit right in with the Pack there) and then was kicked off the team for an unspecified violation of team rules.

He played two games and just 12 minutes before his injury and then seven before being suspended in January. He comes with some question marks but the guy can play, as you’ll see here. Some of this is just beautiful basketball. He does look a bit surly but that can be a real asset. If he can make high-level passes like that at State, Pack fans will be thrilled.

Keatts brings in three freshmen. LJ Thomas is the best of the bunch. A four-star recruit, the 6-2 Thomas is a local kid out of Carrboro. He was a bit under the radar but look at who made offers: Virginia Tech, Houston, Auburn, Wichita State, Texas A&M, Maryland, and Florida. That’s Mike Young, Kelvin Sampson, Bruce Pearl and Buzz Williams, among others, who saw great promise. Keep an eye on him.

The other two are also local but walk-ons. Jordan Snell is from Cary. The other walk-on will ring a bell: KJ Keatts, also from Cary.

So is State primed for a big comeback year? Quite possibly, if they can stay injury free. They have good and experienced big men. No more baptisms by fire. They have a potentially great backcourt and a potential breakout star in Smith.

Keatts could probably use some help on the wings but that never bothered him at Wilmington. Much like Coach K, he adapts to his personnel and he coaches for toughness. And maybe Gantt and Clark can handle that role or maybe he goes with a three-guard offense.

Thing is, he can go 11 deep, if everyone stays healthy, and State has some meaningful talent too. Let’s see what he can do with it.