N.C. State claimed the first big win of Kevin Keatts' coaching tenure when it beat Arizona 90-84 on Nov. 22.
That win, though, appeared to be a mere outlier when the Wolfpack traveled home from Notre Dame in the wee hours of Jan. 4 after an 88-58 loss.
That defeat, combined with a 78-62 loss at Clemson on Dec. 30, left N.C. State 0-2 in the ACC and looking very much like the team picked by media to finish 12th in the league during a preseason poll.
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His team needed a message to break it from its slump. Keatts, in what’s become his strength at all his head coaching stops, found it.
It wasn’t a practice full of running laps. It wasn’t an expletive-filled tirade to dress down his team.
It was a reminder.
“Coach went against the grain,” said Thomas Carr, N.C. State’s director of basketball operations. “He showed them the Arizona game and showed them all of the things that we did right that allowed us to win that game. It allowed us to take that and build on it.”
When the Wolfpack beat Duke, ranked No. 2 in the country at the time, 96-85 on Jan. 6, Keatts’ leadership style had worked once again.
That style started at Hargrave Military Academy, a prep school in Chatham, Va., where Keatts was first a head coach.
It continued at UNC Wilmington, the first college to hire Keatts as head coach. In three seasons, he led the Seahawks to three winning records and NCAA tournament berths in his final two years.
Now the 45-year-old Keatts is leading the Wolfpack, who had suffered through a pair of losing seasons while he was down in Wilmington winning Colonial Athletic Association championships and playing in the NCAA tournament.
Carr played for Keatts at Hargrave. He coached with him at UNC Wilmington. Now he works for Keatts with the Wolfpack.
At every stop, he’s seen Keatts find just the right message for each team, each player at just the right time to help them find success together.
Now the Wolfpack know all about it.
“There is just something about coach Keatts,” N.C. State senior forward Lennard Freeman said. “He is a natural leader. He knows what to say at the right time, knows how to get people playing well. He knows how to talk to certain people and who to yell at. He knows how to motivate you.”
Keatts played college basketball at Ferrum, a Division III school in Virginia. His coaching career began with one season as an assistant at Southwestern Michigan College in 1996-97.
He joined Hargrave as an assistant coach in summer 1997, making $10,000 plus free room and board.
By 1999, he was Hargrave’s head coach where the foundation for his leadership and coaching style took root. It wasn’t always perfect, but Keatts appreciates those days now.
“Hargrave was unique because it gave me the chance to make mistakes without anybody really caring,” Keatts said. “I had a chance to develop a system. Through that, I learned how to manage guys. I learned how to deal with different personalities. I learned how to take guys and develop guys. We had a new set of guys every year. You would have to take your system and teach it over and over again. I didn’t have any returners to show the new guys how to play.”
His system worked famously well. In two stints as Hargrave’s head coach, totaling 10 seasons, Keatts went 263-17 and the Tigers were named the nation’s top high school team in 2004 and 2008.
Though he had no military background, Keatts took to the regimented life at Hargrave. The students live in barracks with no cable or satellite television and limited cell phone use. Wake-up is 6 a.m., courtesy of a blaring horn. Meals, classes and study halls are strictly scheduled with a daily inspection mixed in.
Carr knows it well, having played for Keatts at Hargrave before a college career at Pfeiffer and a coaching job on Keatts’ staff at UNC Wilmington.
“One of the best things about Hargrave is the day is structured,” said Carr. “The routine you carry on with you after you leave. There’s a blueprint. Everything you do is a process. It’s a matter of how quickly the guys we inherit or recruit buy into that. With coach, it goes back to we are going to follow the blueprint, we’re going to follow the process and do the things that we know work.”
But Keatts learned he needed to have some flexibility amid the regimented lifestyle. Coaching at a prep school meant a new team every year, so he had to develop precise communication skills to get his message across quickly.
He had to learn what message worked for which group at the right time.
“The one thing you can’t factor in is the personalities of the guys you coach,” Carr said. “That’s one of coach’s best attributes is his ability to relate to people in general. Different walks of life, coach can endear himself to them where they feel like he cares. What I’m going through is important. That makes that person want to be better or do more or work harder to keep coach Keatts’ respect or earn coach Keatts’ respect.”
And that brings the story back to last January at N.C. State, when the Wolfpack season appeared headed on a downward spiral until Keatts decided to remind his team what it was capable of accomplishing.
“For our team,” Carr said, “they were really unsure of how we won that (Arizona) game. We won it by playing together. We won it by guys staying in the moment and being tough enough when it mattered. Both offensively and defensively those guys answered runs and got key stops. Not all the stops. But the key stops.”
Carr isn’t the only member of Keatts’ staff who knows the head coach’s Hargrave background well. Wolfpack assistant coach A.W. Hamilton played for Keatts at Hargrave, worked as an assistant under him there and took over as head coach in 2011 when Keatts left to become a Louisville assistant coach.
Wolfpack assistant coach Takayo Siddle also played and coached under Keatts at Hargrave before joining Keatts staff at UNC Wilmington. N.C. State assistant coach James Johnson played two seasons with Keatts at Ferrum and is also a former Hargrave assistant.
Keatts, who was hired a year ago to replace Mark Gottfried, leads the Wolfpack (21-11) into the NCAA tournament Thursday against Seton Hall (21-11). N.C. State senior forward Abdul-Malik Abu, one three players on the roster with NCAA tournament experience, said Keatts proved quickly his ability to make the Wolfpack better.
“It’s all about the approach,” Abu said. “He just comes in with the right mindset and the right approach. We have to do all the little things right to be successful. We are really ready for this.”
Last spring, 7-foot center Omer Yurtseven had a chance to leave N.C. State for professional basketball. He decided to stay for his sophomore year because Keatts quickly impressed him.
This season, he’s averaged 13.8 points and 6.9 rebounds as a force inside for the Wolfpack and is more prepared for pro basketball should he make that choice this spring.
As usual, Keatts found a way to get through to Yurtseven and the two have thrived.
“I’d say he’s an honest man,” Yurtseven said. “He was honest with me from the beginning. I just don’t want this to be our last game together.”