Kevin Keatts, by his own proclamation, is a winner. He’s also a man who puts his money where his mouth is.
Keatts, the second-year basketball coach at N.C. State, was the keynote speaker at North Carolina Central’s third annual Tip-Off Banquet at the Millennium Hotel in Durham on Thursday night. Keatts was invited by Eagles’ head coach LeVelle Moton, who is coming off back-to-back MEAC conference tournament championships, one of just three coaches in the country who can make that claim.
At the event Moton handed out the 2018 championship rings to his team, a practice that has become commonplace. Under Moton the Eagles have won three tournament championships since 2014, resulting in automatic trips to the NCAA tournament. NCCU has also won three regular season championships in that same span.
Moton has turned the Eagles into a respected team in Division I basketball, where handing out rings and shiny trophies have become expected. But Keatts’ message to the 100 or so supporters in the second floor ballroom was not to take it all for granted; there can be more done.
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“I’m here to ask for help for LeVelle,” Keatts said as he moved around the stage, a wireless microphone clipped to his suit jacket. “I don’t think you guys understand what you have here. I don’t think you guys understand the program that you have here.”
Keatts talked about his time at UNC-Wilmington, when he took over a program that had a drop off in success before he got there. During his three-year stay on the coast, Keatts went 72-28, winning three CAA titles, with two NCAA Tournament appearances. The reason the Seahawks were successful, Keatts said, was because he was able to change the mindset.
“I told a group (of NCCU supporters) earlier that you take what you have for granted,” Keatts said. “If you think of what (Moton) has done, it’s tremendous. As I pull up his bio and see what LeVelle has done, I’m amazed because I didn’t know everything. But I want to ask you to give more, I want you to participate more because the more you give then you’ll help him out and get the results you like. You have to change the way you do business.”
During his second year at UNCW, Keatts figured out it was best to have more home or neutral games, than games on the road. Home games, obviously, generate revenue and the Eagles have spent so much money traveling for non-conference games under Moton.
N.C. plays just four home games in November and December before they start conference play. Before the New Year, they will play games in Ohio, Missouri, Florida and South Carolina.
Last season they played a non-conference game in Arizona against Grand Canyon University, a cross country trip that resulted in a 64-59 loss. Keatts said NCCU supporters have to figure out how to raise money so that Moton doesn’t have to take his team on the road for an entire month to open the season. If not, Keatts said, then it’s always going to be a losing formula.
Last season, Moton said in an ideal world he would play a non-conference schedule that was made up of all in-state opponents. This season the Eagles play two in-state non-conference foes -- at Appalachian State and home against Christendom College.
“How good would it be if he didn’t have to drive 11 or 12 hours to go play somebody?” Keatts asked. “And you could have those home games. Now instead of him winning 22 games, now because he’s home, maybe he wins 27, and when the (NCAA) committee sees that, maybe he’s not a 16 seed.”
During NCCU’s last two trips to the NCAA tournament, the Eagles went to Dayton, Ohio for the First Four as a 16 seed.
Keatts also talked about stopping by the Durham campus and pointed out that NCCU needs its own practice facility. At N.C. State, Keatts has the luxury of the Dail Center, an on-campus, basketball only, practice complex. But when he was at Wilmington, Keatts remembers having to share his home floor at Trask Coliseum with volleyball, women’s basketball or any other event that was happening on campus. Whenever NCCU is forced out of McDougald-McLendon Arena, they have to fight for time at the Walker Complex, an on-campus gym that’s open to all students, or even leave campus to practice at a nearby high school.
“LeVelle needs it,” Keatts said. “So eventually if you want to move this program in the right direction you’re going to have to help him. He’s going to take what he’s got, but you have to get out of the mindset that we can win with less because you are spoiled by that part. Once you change your mindset and start giving, then I’m telling you this program will go to another level. Who do you want to be?”
Keatts said many years ago schools like VCU, George Mason and Butler were faced with the same challenges. Now all three schools have been to the Final Four.
But the 46-year-old Keatts didn’t just talk the talk. At the conclusion of his speech he challenged the supporters in the crowd. He reached in his back pocket and pulled out a check. Keatts made it clear that he checked with his compliance department (and his wife, Georgette) to make sure he was allowed to, and said he would match up to $2,000 if anyone donated before the evening was over.
“Not only am I going to talk about it,” Keatts said, “I’m going to be about it.”
Later that evening, when Moton was on the stage, a student walked up on the stage and handed him a check that someone donated anonymously.
Moton looked at the amount, and wouldn’t say how much it was, simply looking at the audience and saying, “we’re good.”
“This is going to be a beautiful year,” Keatts said. “This is a beautiful university, you guys have done tremendous things, but don’t get satisfied.”