Friedlander: Turnaround season a beginning, not a destination for Kevin Keatts, NC State
The book closed on NC State’s 2022-23 season with a 72-63 loss to Creighton in the NCAA Tournament on Friday.
OK, now what?
Kevin Keatts succeeded in transforming the Wolfpack from a 21-loss team to a 23-win squad that finished in the top half of the ACC and earned its 1st NCAA Tournament bid in 5 years.
It’s an accomplishment brought about by the return of sharpshooter Terquavion Smith, a major staff overhaul and some creative use of the NCAA’s transfer portal. It was made all the more impressive by the fact that Keatts pulled it off with his job squarely on the line.
But that doesn’t mean it’s time to step back and start celebrating.
Keatts’ ability to stay off the hot seat and gain long-term job security will depend heavily on his ability to orchestrate the same kind of success during the upcoming offseason as he did during the season.
“We don’t want to go back to that 1 year,” Keatts said in his postgame comments in Denver on Friday. “I want to look at it as if it was a bad year. And I want to continue for the program to rise.”
The key to making that happen, at least in the short term, will be finding replacements for the 2 players most responsible for State’s turnaround.
Graduate transfer point guard Jarkel Joiner is out of eligibility while Smith, who went off for 32 points in the loss to Creighton, is almost certain to take his NBA range to the NBA this time after his surprise return last year.
The dynamic backcourt duo ranked 1-2 on the team in scoring and assists while accounting for a combined 35 points per game.
Even with the arrival of 4-star recruits Trey Parker and the unrelated Dennis Parker Jr., Keatts will almost certainly have to make another foray into the transfer portal to fill the void.
That always involves an element of luck. There’s no way Keatts could have foreseen the impact Joiner and big man DJ Burns could have had when he brought them in from Ole Miss and Winthrop, respectively.
But the Wolfpack coach does at least have a blueprint for what he thinks would be a good fit. And it doesn’t necessarily involve the highest rated players on the market.
“I wanted to get out and find some guys that I felt like were NC State guys,” he said of the philosophy that identified this year’s free agent class. “They played hard, they competed. We talk about accountability. We have ART – accountability, relentless, toughness and together. We wanted guys to be able to do this.”
His ability to find players who fit that description, and bring elite talent along with it, should be enhanced by several recent developments.
The most obvious took place on the court.
Every young player dreams of getting his One Shining Moment in the NCAA Tournament and State’s participation in this year’s event was an effective advertisement for the program.
Even with the 1st-round defeat.
Most of those players also view their college careers as a stepping-stone to the NBA. Smith’s selection as a likely 1st-round pick will be an unmistakable sign to those players that you can get to the league from Raleigh.
And then there’s the bigger picture.
The ACC in general and the Triangle in particular have long been the fiefdom of neighboring rivals Duke and North Carolina.
But with Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams – along with fellow Hall of Famer Jim Boeheim at Syracuse – out of the picture, the door is ajar for someone else to step in and take over as the league’s top banana.
Could that be Keatts and the Wolfpack?
It’s not as implausible as it sounds.
State might be viewed as the redheaded stepchild of the ACC’s Big 4 today, but it wasn’t always that way.
The Wolfpack are 1 of just 4 current league members to have won multiple men’s basketball national championships. UNC, Duke and Louisville are the others.
NC State ended the UCLA dynasty in 1974 behind the talents of David Thompson, Tom Burleson and Monte Towe, then captured the hearts of the nation by winning another title under Jim Valvano in 1983.
It can be done.
The climb to the top, however, is a struggle. And it’s only become more complicated because of parity, the freedom of player movement, NIL and other factors.
Keatts also faces the challenge of winning back his own finicky fan base.
He arrived with fanfare after a successful run at nearby UNC Wilmington. Debbie Yow, the athletic director who hired him, proclaimed that “Kevin Keatts is a winner!”
That has slowly devolved from a rallying cry to semi-derisive taunt during a gap of 4 straight years without an NCAA Tournament bid. His relationship with Wolfpack Nation soured even further during a 2021-22 season and ended with a school-record 21 losses.
It’s an experience he said humbled him.
Even though he was able to bounce back right away and no longer finds himself recruiting with the handicap of a now completed NCAA investigation into previous coach Mark Gottfried, there is still a segment of State supporters that would just as soon him gone. He still hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game in his 6 years in Raleigh.
Keatts is well aware of the criticism. And he’s determined to quiet it.
“It’s a lot of hard work that goes into winning. Winning is not easy,” he said. “At some point in my career I thought winning was very easy because I was comfortable and we won. When we had the year last year, I realized that it’s not given to you. It’s earned. And to earn, you’ve got to work.”
Keatts put in the effort over the past year and it paid off in a season to savor.
But while that was enough to buy him more time to get the job done, his work with the Wolfpack has only just begun.