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At NC State, ‘if you don’t play hard, somebody else is going to get your minutes’

If you’re not early, you’re late.

And if you’re late for anything — practice, film study, class, workouts — you’re not going to start for N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts.

“Accountability is part of our culture,” Keatts said.

And Keatts’ culture is winning. The Wolfpack is off to a 9-1 start with its biggest nonconference test of the season on Wednesday night (7 p.m., ESPN2) at PNC Arena against No. 7 Auburn (9-1).

Junior guard Markell Johnson, the team’s top player, was late (by Keatts’ standard) for practice three days before the game against Penn State on Dec. 15. He didn’t start in the 89-78 win over the Nittany Lions.

C.J. Bryce, the team’s second-leading scorer, was late to a film session before the game against Vanderbilt win on Dec. 1. He didn’t start in the 80-65 win over the Commodores.

They did both eventually play in the games they didn’t start but Keatts and the rest of the team moved on. And won. That’s how it goes with Keatts, who spent 10 years at a military prep school.

“I’m focused on our guys doing the right thing on and off the court,” Keatts said.

Building for the future

So far, his second N.C. State team, with mostly a different group than his 21-win NCAA tournament outfit from last season, has done the right things.

Senior Torin Dorn (16 points, 6.9 rebounds per game) and Johnson (12.3 points, 4.3 assists per game) have driven the bus. The newcomers have pitched in with Bryce and Devon Daniels on the wing and D.J. Funderburk and Wyatt Walker in the post.

Guards Braxton Beverly and Blake Harris, a Missouri transfer, have complemented Johnson’s game at the point.

This team is more aggressive defensively and deep. The effort level is conspicuous, particularly compared to some other Wolfpack teams under previous coaches.

This group plays hard and comes in waves. Keatts has used a 10-man rotation and hasn’t hesitated to make a point about the process. That’s not by accident.

“This is not a situation where I want one or two good years,” said Keatts, who had a new six-year contract finalized this past Friday. “I want to build for the future. I think it’s important that everybody in our program understands that accountability is one of the major things.”

Dorn is one of only two holdovers from former coach Mark Gottfried’s tenure. The message of accountability and playing hard isn’t lost on the players.

“As we grew as a team, and as the regime changed, I feel like that was something that was a major point of emphasis is playing hard and playing hard all the time,” Dorn said.

Pour it all out

Ten players are averaging more than 13 minutes per game and six more than 20. No one averages more than 26.7 (Bryce). That’s a departure from the star system used by Gottfried, which kept the best players on the floor for 35 minutes (or more) per game and led to players taking possessions off on defense.

That equation doesn’t work with Keatts.

“If you don’t play hard, somebody else is going to get your minutes,” Keatts said.

It’s a concept, in an alleged “me first” era of college basketball, that the Wolfpack players have come to appreciate.

“We know that we can play ourselves to exhaustion,” said Beverly, who had a season-high 18 points in the win over Penn State.

That’s exactly the mentality Keatts wants. Pour it all out and then let the next guy get in and do the same.

“The thing that burns me up is when guys don’t compete,” Keatts said.

“I want us to punch the clock every time that we show up for a game. In these 10 games, I would say every game that we have played, I thought our guys competed and played extremely hard. That’s just the way I want it to be.”

And that’s the way it will be, Keatts said, or else.

“The messages are going to continue to be sent,” he said.

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No. 7 Auburn at N.C. State

When: 7 p.m., Wednesday

Where: PNC Arena, Raleigh

TV/radio/internet: ESPN2, 101.5-WRAL, watchespn.com

Auburn (9-1)

G Jared Harper 16.2 ppg, 6.4 apg

G Bryce Brown 16.7 ppg, 2.5 rpg

G Samir Doughty 8.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg

F Anfernee McLemore 6.9 ppg, 5.0 rpg

F Chuma Okeke 10.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg

N.C. State (9-1)

G Markell Johnson 12.3 ppg, 4.3 apg

G Devon Daniels 9.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg

G C.J. Bryce 12.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg

G Torin Dorn 16.0 ppg, 6.9 rpg

F Wyatt Walker 6.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg

Notes: Like N.C. State, Auburn got caught up in the pay-for-play FBI scandal that swept through college basketball last September. Unlike N.C. State, the players involved in the case are still on the Auburn team. Forwards Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy were ruled ineligible by the NCAA last year. The mothers of the two players allegedly took money, $18,500 as reported by Al.com, from former assistant coach Chuck Person. Wiley averages 11.1 points in nine games this season. Purifoy was suspended for the first nine games but made his season debut in Auburn’s overtime win over UAB last Saturday. ... This is N.C. State’s first nonconference home game against a top-25 opponent since the 2013-14 season and only the fifth at PNC Arena since it opened before the 1999-2000 season.

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