Kevin Keatts believes he knows why N.C. State did not make the NCAA tournament last season.
The strength of the Wolfpack’s nonconference schedule was not the primary reason, Keatts said. Still, he’d like to avoid the dubious distinction of being ranked last among all 353 Division I teams in nonconference strength of schedule on Selection Sunday again.
“We’re trying to stay away from teams that we think maybe (ranked) in the 300s,” Keatts said. “We’re trying. That doesn’t necessarily happen.”
Keatts is still finalizing the nonconference schedule for the 2019-20 season but the Wolfpack will host Wisconsin, go to Auburn and face Memphis in a neutral-site game on Thanksgiving.
With the ACC tournament’s return to the Greensboro Coliseum, the Wolfpack will also play a regular-season game there against UNC Greensboro. The Spartans won 29 games last season and made the NIT. They beat Keatts’ first N.C. State team in Raleigh in 2017.
With the ACC schedule expanding to 20 games, there will be 11 nonconference slots this season (down from 13). With four games set, that leaves seven for N.C. State to fill.
Three of those will be home dates in the Barclays Center Classic. The fourth game, in what is called a “multi-team event” in NCAA vernacular, will be the Nov. 28 matchup with Memphis in Brooklyn at the Barclays Center. Penny Hardaway’s second team, with the top recruiting class in the country, will likely open the season ranked in the top 10.
“I wanted to schedule a team on a neutral court that I thought was a great team,” Keatts said. “We are excited about the opportunity to play those guys.”
The home date with Wisconsin is a rematch in the Big Ten Challenge. The Wolfpack lost 79-75 on the road to the Badgers last season.
“We’re excited to get the Wisconsin game back here,” Keatts said. “It was a great game up there. We certainly had our chances.”
The game at Auburn fulfills a home-and-home contract with the Tigers. N.C. State beat Auburn 78-71 in Raleigh last December. The Tigers finished the season in the Final Four.
That was the best win for Keatts’ second team, which finished the season in the NIT quarterfinals. The Wolfpack was on the NCAA tournament bubble with a strong NET ranking but a weak NC SOS.
“I’ll be honest with you, I don’t think that our strength of schedule, nonconference, kept us out,” Keatts said. “If we could have beaten either Carolina, Duke or Virginia, I think we get in.”
N.C. State went 0-5 against those top three teams in the ACC. The 66-65 overtime home loss to UVa, the eventual national champion, was its best shot at a signature ACC win.
Keatts argued that Syracuse, which lost to N.C. State during their only matchup of the regular season, made the NCAA field because it had a win over one of the ACC’s heavyweights.
“I think that one win, at Duke, probably put them over the hump,” Keatts said of the Orange. “We had our opportunities, especially when you look at the Virginia game at home.”
N.C. State’s nonconference schedule was weighted down by a cluster of poor teams. Eight of the 13 teams the Wolfpack played outside the ACC last season were ranked No. 270 or worse in the KenPom ratings, and six were in the 300s.
Keatts noted that predicting how a team’s season will actually turn out can be tricky. Vanderbilt had a lottery pick in point guard Darius Garland but his season only lasted five games. The Commodores ended up going winless in SEC play and 9-23 overall without the injured Garland.
UNC-Asheville was another team that won 21 games the previous season, and made the NIT, but bottomed out with a 4-27 record last season.
“The tough thing about it is when you look at a team on paper, they may look good and they suddenly fall flat,” Keatts said. “That’s what happened to us last year. Some of the teams we played, we thought were going to be really good and it didn’t turn out that way.”