While N.C. State suffered through back-to-back losing seasons, Kevin Keatts experienced the NCAA tournament the last two years.
The same goes for Seton Hall, a No. 6 seed in the 2016 field and a No. 9 seed last March.
Now Keatts, having coached UNC Wilmington to the 2016 and 2017 NCAA tournaments, must pass his experiences on to the Wolfpack, who have the experience deficit for its NCAA tournament first-round game against Seton Hall Thursday at 4:30 p.m. on TBS in Wichita, Kansas.
“All I can do is talk about the experience,” Keatts, who's in his first season with the Wolfpack, said Monday. “I don’t know about the other 67 teams in the field and what they are going to do. But we are going to go into this tournament and have the most fun we can have this week. We are going to prepare. I want our guys to be excited about it. All I ask of our guys is what I’ve asked all year long -- to come out and play hard and compete.”
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Keatts’ last two UNCW teams won Colonial Athletic Association tournament championships to enter the NCAA tournament with automatic bids. The Seahawks lost 93-85 to Duke in 2016 and 76-71 to Virginia in 2017.
Meanwhile over the past two seasons, current Wolfpack starters junior forward Torin Dorn, sophomore forward Omer Yurtseven and sophmore guard Markell Johnson were left out of the NCAAs. N.C. State went 16-17 in 2016 and 15-17 last season, missing the tournament both years under coach Mark Gottfried.
Reserve forward Abdul-Malik Abu, now a senior, played on N.C. State’s 2015 team that won two NCAA tournament games to reach the round of 16. Senior reserve forward Lennard Freeman will play in his third NCAA tournament, having played on N.C. State’s tournament teams in 2014 and 2015.
Allerik Freeman, the Wolfpack’s leading scorer (15.4 points) in his first season at N.C. State as a graduate transfer from Baylor, played in the last three NCAA tournaments with the Bears.
But those three players are the only current N.C State players with NCAA tournament experience.
Dorn, who started his career at Charlotte, could only watch the last two NCAA tournaments on television. That got old quick.
“I watched it a little bit,” Dorn said, “but you get to the point where like, `Alright man. I want to be here.’ So you can’t really watch all the games.”
This season, Dorn averaged 13.8 points and 6.1 rebounds for the Wolfpack (21-11). He’s a big reason why N.C. State is back in the tournament field.
“I have the opportunity to go into the tournament and do some things,” Dorn said. “It’s big for us. It’s big for State and the fans. We love it.”
Keatts said the Wolfpack are ready for the challenge even though the players aren’t showing the same type of emotion he saw at UNC Wilmington the last two years.
“When you are at a place like Wilmington and you know you have a chance to play Duke and UVa last year, our guys were just so hungry,” Keatts said. “They wanted to play on the big stage. They were excited about it. I have a different personality with this group. Not that these guys don’t want to but they don’t show you a lot of emotion. Mid-majors, this is their one opportunity.”
N.C. State has wins over Duke and North Carolina, which both earned No. 2 seeds in their NCAA tournament regions. The Wolfpack beat Arizona, a No. 4 seed, and Clemson, a No. 5 seed.
So facing Seton Hall (21-11) isn’t as special or as challenging as playing those teams.
“It feels like we’re back to AAU days, getting to play someone that you’ve never seen before,” Dorn said. “Someone not from your area. It’s definitely fun to go and do that.”
The Pirates, who beat Butler (twice), Providence and Creighton in Big East play this season, have senior starters Angel Delgado, Desi Rodriguez and Khadeen Carrington, who played in the last two NCAA tournaments. Forwards Michael Nzei and Ismael Sanogo also have experience in two NCAA tournaments.
What the Pirates haven’t done is win in the NCAA tournament. Seton Hall lost 68-52 to Gonzaga in the first round of the 2016 tournament before losing 77-71 to Arkansas in last year’s first round.
The Wolfpack, as inexperienced as they may be at this level, aim to make it three years in a row with no NCAA tournament wins for the Pirates.
“Definitely winning every game,” Yurtseven said. “We didn’t really have a great ACC tournament. We just want to get out there and just win, to be honest.”