NC State

Can NC State’s Kevin Keatts bring the Pack back to the top of the ACC?

Sometimes you can see change coming a mile away. This may be one of those times.

Kevin Keatts is just getting started at N.C. State. He’s barely two dozen games into his coaching tenure, a little early to draw overarching conclusions. Yet already we’re seeing traits long absent from Raleigh, including a sense that a consistent basketball culture is being established.

“Taking this job,” Keatts said last spring, “I want to build a program. And my thoughts are to build a program that will stand the test of time as opposed to having just one great season.”

Whether 2018 qualifies as a great season is a matter of perspective. It’s already pretty good, with time left for greater heights to be reached before year’s end. The Wolfpack, expected to struggle to compete in the ACC, instead has beaten four ranked teams, three within the league.

There’s a distinctive on-court style, a coherent approach that includes emphasizing defense and forcing tempo to suit the Pack’s purposes. There’s also sufficient talent to form a bridge to next season (especially if Omer Yurtseven returns) and to seasons beyond, with an exceptional class of recruits and transfers on deck.

This raises a possibility virtually unknown in modern times – having three strong programs operating simultaneously in the Triangle. That used to be the norm. Between 1955 and 1990 State, Duke and Carolina finished among the ACC’s top four in 20 of 36 seasons (55.6 percent), combining for 28 ACC tournament titles and four national championships. Since 1991 the neighbors have been in the top four together seven times in 27 seasons (25.9 percent), the Wolfpack finishing as high as second only in 2004.

In fact, N.C. State long ago dropped off the national radar except as a place where it’s supposedly too difficult to succeed. Lately its position near the league’s forefront has been occupied by Virginia, poised to finish in first place for the third time in five seasons. This is historic territory – the last program, the only program, other than Duke or North Carolina that finished alone in first three times in a five-year period was Everett Case’s N.C. State between 1955 and 1959.

Tony Bennett’s top-ranked squad has restored UVa to a position of prominence the school last occupied more than two decades ago. Unfortunately the Cavs’ deliberate, defense-oriented style of play, stultifying to some, wins games but not popular appreciation. Neither does Virginia gain admirers with its NCAA performances. The Cavs earned NCAA bids in five of the past six years (except 2013) but reached a single Sweet 16 (2014) and one Elite Eight (2016).

Virginia head coach Tony Bennett reacts to a first half call against his team. Duke was defeated by Virginia 65-63 at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham on Jan. 27, 2018 Chuck Liddy

More striking, UVa’s 39 points in its second game in last year’s East Regional, a loss to Florida, was the lowest output by an ACC team in NCAA competition since the league began in 1954, including decades when there was neither a shot clock nor 3-pointer. Not exactly what advocates sought when the rules were adjusted a few years back to advantage offenses.

The Cavaliers’ Elite Eight appearance ended in a defeat by Syracuse, a marginal NCAA entrant in 2016. “The Orange also notched a second-place ACC finish in 2014, the only notable seasons enjoyed by Jim Boeheim’s program in its five years as a conference member.

That isn’t exactly the glory anticipated when the conference touted a stable of four Hall of Fame coaches at mid-decade. One of the four, Louisville’s Rick Pitino, already is gone, forced out amid scandal. Boeheim was supposed to be on his way out, too, having announced well in advance that the ’18 season would be his last. Then he changed his mind and coach-in-waiting Mike Hopkins, who’d already reportedly turned down Boston College, fled to Washington, where he’s prospered.

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski yells to his team during the first half of N.C. State's game against Duke at PNC Arena on Jan. 6, 2018. Ethan Hyman

Last spring Boeheim, 73, said he intended to stay as head coach “for five or six more years,” or until his son Buddy, a freshman this coming fall, has finished playing at Syracuse. Maybe the school will accommodate the coach. But the Orange have only sporadically reached the NCAAs since joining the ACC. This is the fourth consecutive year they’re an ACC afterthought, struggling to finish in the middle of the league, their worst extended dip since the early 1980s. A continued slump presents the awkward possibility Boeheim will outstay his welcome, a la football program-builders Joe Paterno at Penn State and Bobby Bowden at Florida State.

Meanwhile, our two local Hall of Famers, Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski, endure the pains of wrangling inconsistent youngsters into effective units.

North Carolina head coach Roy Williams cheers on the team during the second half of UNC's 96-89 victory over N.C. State at PNC Arena on Feb. 10, 2018. Ethan Hyman

To some extent, Williams – whose ’18 squad got off to one of the worst ACC starts (5-5) in his 15 seasons at Chapel Hill – is dealing with the consequences of unexpected early player departures, notably big man Tony Bradley, who left after his freshman year. Such turnover is rare at UNC this decade but commonplace among powerful programs in the one-and-done era, a ratification of sorts for the quality of a coach’s recruiting.

When it comes to personnel turnover, no coach except Kentucky’s John Calipari rivals Krzyzewski, 71 this week and piloting his third freshman-laden squad in four years. The 2015 team, starting three college newcomers, won the NCAA title. But as blueprints go, that approach may not have been replicable. Certainly it didn’t work last year for Duke and doesn’t appear to be working all that well this year, either.

Even before the Blue Devils fell to lowly St. John’s, leading Krzyzewski to decry his players’ indolent performance as “disgusting”; even before they lost to UNC, their once-signature defense so inconsequential the Tar Heels committed a mere two turnovers; the coach sounded unusually weary, a weariness deeper than the grind of a long, tough season, a weariness perhaps informed by an end coming into view.

“I’ve gone to Disney World about 30 times, now I’ve got to go to Disney World again,” he said after a win over crippled Notre Dame. “I’ve got to be in (the players’) moment. I think I’m good with it, but I have to keep working at it. Where you don’t get frustrated. Because they have to go through stuff, man. They have to get lost at times.”

And so their coach with them.

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