The N.C. State players gathered Saturday afternoon at the Dail Basketball Complex, sitting anxiously, awaiting their new coach.
“We were like in shock, like we don’t know what’s about to happen,” sophomore Shaun Kirk said Sunday. “We all just sat there, took a deep breath and …”
In stepped Kevin Keatts.
“It was great. It was unreal, almost,” sophomore Torin Dorn said. “It was like yesterday we didn’t have a coach and then today this coach walks in with this big plan and this big vision and we’re just all eyes, all ears, all into it.”
Wolfpack fans got their first look at Keatts on Sunday, in his introductory news conference at Reynolds Coliseum. As he spoke, the Pack players sat in the first two rows, their eyes glued to their new head coach, their new leader.
Keatts, officially named N.C. State’s coach on Friday, said many of the things he told the players at the Saturday meeting. He said he believed in hard work, that he came to N.C. State embracing the school’s rich basketball tradition, appreciative of its passionate fan base, undeterred by having two Hall of Fame coaches in his backyard and determined to build the program to a championship level.
Keatts talked of his three successful years at UNC-Wilmington — his only three years as a Division I head coach. The Seahawks, he noted, won both regular-season and tournament championships in the Colonial Athletic Association, reaching the NCAA tournament the past two seasons.
Keatts wasn’t boastful but spoke with a certain degree of confidence, perhaps mindful that achievement, not words or promises, is what matters most. Keatts’ predecessor, Mark Gottfried, wasn’t lacking confidence but lacked enough wins the past two years to keep his job.
Kirk was able to give his teammates a feel for what to expect from Keatts, who Kirk said recruited him when he was at Whiteville High.
“I used to take visits to UNCW, talk to him a lot, so I know him pretty well,” Kirk said. “My teammates were trying to figure out what kind of coach he was, and I told them he’s a great guy and a great coach, too. He wants the best for you as a person.
“That’s one thing that caught their attention, that I knew a little bit about him, so that took a lot of pressure off of them.”
One pressing question a new coach faces is player turnover. Some may not like you or your style of play. Some may be leaning toward leaving for the NBA or believe a new school and another coach is a better option.
Keatts, with a smile, said Sunday that Abdul-Malik Abu, who tested the NBA waters a year ago, could lead the country in dunks next season in his uptempo style.
“He comes in with tremendous energy,” Abu said. “He believes we can turn this page, play hard, compete and do all the things we wanted to do.”
Abu said he was considering a return for his senior season, saying, “N.C. State is my home” and he liked the idea of being a part of Keatts’ first Wolfpack team. At the same time, he also said he was “still weighing things.”
Keatts promised that his practices would be intense and not for the timid, causing Abu to laugh and say, “I’m already sore just from hearing him talk.”
Lennard Freeman, a senior who redshirted this season, said he was anxious to get started under Keatts, saying, “I think it’s going to be different, it’s going to be special. I can’t wait.”
When the meeting ended Saturday at the Dail Complex, Kirk said the feedback from his teammates on Keatts was immediate, positive.
“They told me, ‘Shaun, you were right,’ ” he said. “They love him already. Not even spending an hour with him they love him to death. When you have that type of connection with a coach, from your players, a lot of great things can be accomplished.”