It’s easy to forget where N.C. State’s basketball program was when Kevin Keatts was hired and where it ended up last season.
N.C. State won only four ACC games and finished the 2016-17 with a losing record (15-17).
Keatts was able to take a roster, mostly of holdovers from Mark Gottfried’s tenure, and go 11-7 in the ACC, win 21 games and reach the NCAA tournament.
Will Keatts, in Year 2, be able to recreate the success he had in Year 1 with an almost completely new roster?
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“What we did last year was a very special year, especially with some guys who were coming off of a year when they didn’t have a lot of success,” Keatts said. “We don’t take it for granted that we won 11 games in the ACC. That’s hard to do in any given year. That being said, this is a totally different team and I’m excited about this group.”
It is a new group that will take the floor at PNC Arena on Tuesday night in the season-opener against Mount St. Mary’s. Six of the nine players in the regular rotation last season are gone.
The only holdovers (point guard Markell Johnson, wing Torin Dorn and guard Braxton Beverly) are good ones but Beverly will miss the early part of the season with a hand injury.
The new talent on the roster has shown early promise, particularly the transfer trio of Devon Daniels, C.J. Bryce and Wyatt Walker. Daniels, a transfer from Utah, and Bryce, a transfer from UNCW, are both 6-5 guards and expected to share the scoring load.
The Wolfpack has to replace 63.4 percent of its scoring from last year’s team and 58.2 percent of its 3-point shooting.
Daniels and Bryce have a year of practice experience at N.C. State under their belts. So they’re not walking in blind to Keatts’ up-tempo, pressing style.
“They were here,” Dorn said. “If they step in and play the way they are capable of playing, then the sky is the limit for our team.”
The big question is in the middle. Omer Yurtseven, who averaged 13.5 points and 6.7 rebounds per game last season, transferred to Georgetown while Malik Abu and Lennard Freeman were seniors.
Dorn, who was second on the team in rebounding (6.3 per game) last season, will help as an undersized (6-5, 210 pounds) “stretch 4.” So will Keatts’ style of play, which isn’t dependent on kicking the ball into the post.
Without Yurtseven or the other bigs, Keatts will look to play faster this season. With so many guards, that’s probably a smart move.
“I think it will be different than last year,” Dorn said. “You’ll see a different style of play, a different game.”
Keatts said last year’s team only got to about 75 percent of his system. The 46-year-old coach did what he did best last year —improvise.
It’s a skill he honed at Hargrave Military Prep for 10 years and has been able to apply at stops at both UNCW and N.C. State.
After Yurtseven decided to transfer in April, Keatts was able to land Walker, a grad transfer from Samford. Walker missed most of the 2017-18 season with a knee injury. He did lead the Southern Conference in rebounding the previous season.
His size (6-9, 240 pounds) will be needed. A high school teammate of former Duke star Grayson Allen, Walker is the only big on the roster with college experience.
“(Coach) wants me to lead,” Walker said. “You know I’m an older guy and we have a lot young guys and a lot of freshmen on this team.”
Ready to rebound
Walker said he was ready and willing to rebound, set screens and defend the post.
“I think mostly he brought me in to be that hard-nosed guy who plays his tail off,” Walker said.
Sophomore D.J. Funderburk, who showed off a nice shooting stroke in N.C. State’s lone exhibition game, and freshman Ian Steere also give Keatts some options in the middle.
This group won’t be at a shortage of different lineup combinations with 11 eligible scholarship players when Beverly returns in December.
“I love the way we can play,” Keatts said. “I keep using the word for this team ‘versatility,’ and I think that’s what we have in this year’s group.”
This team, will look and play more in the style of what Keatts wants.
“That being said, I don’t want to cheat last year’s team because we did some great things and those guys bought into my system,” Keatts said.
The trick now is do it again.