He’s Kevin Keatts, not Kevin Hart.
Yet this week, with N.C. State preparing for its first NCAA tournament game since 2015 Thursday against Seton Hall, the Wolfpack’s coach is doing his best to keep his team laughing,
“We try to joke,” Keatts said. “We try to make them loose. We try to have fun. I told my team of all of the 68 teams that made the field, I want us to have the most fun. Obviously I’ve been a great comedian this week.”
That’s debatable, his players say. The 45-year-old Keatts makes them laugh but perhaps more the way kids laugh at their dad’s jokes.“I laugh at coach Keatts,” N.C. State senior forward Lennard Freeman said. “He’s a funny guy. He’s not that talented though. Coaches are kinda corny. He’s a funny person. He’s not a comedian. I would not pay to go see him in standup. He’s a funny person, though.”Back when the season started, the Wolfpack (21-11) was expected to be the joke. Coming off back-to-back losing seasons, N.C. State was picked to finish 12th in the ACC in a preseason poll of media attending the league’s Operation Basketball event in Charlotte.Instead, N.C. State played its way into the NCAA tournament’s 68-team field in Keatts’ first season at the school.The easy narrative is to say N.C. State played angry after being dissed. But that’s not the case, Keatts said.“I never played the picked 12th card,” Keatts said. “We don’t have those type of guys. Our guys don’t get motivated by where they are picked.”
Something obviously motivated the Wolfpack, a team featuring a pair of graduate transfers and two more freshmen, to play above expectations.
Keatts admits not being sure what it is, but said the team’s laid-back nature is a plus. So he plays into that.
“This is probably the loosest group that i’ve ever been around,” Keatts said. “But we’ve grown a lot.”
Hence his decision to keep the jokes, however corny they may be, coming often this week
“He’s serious on the court,” N.C. State guard Braxton Beverly said. “But you are going to mess up in practices or in games. He’ll joke around with you in practice while he’s being serious. It lightens the mood. It keeps you from being too tense. Because if you don’t go out and play relaxed and do what you do, it’s going to take away from what you really can do. You are going to overthink.”
Sam Hunt, one of those graduate transfers helping the Wolfpack this season, is the team’s 3-point ace off the bench. The former N.C. A&T player also plays the role of Keatts’ top target.
“That’s his guy,” Beverly said. “He likes to mess with him.”
Hunt has fun with it, which is Keatts’ goal.
“It’s funny,” Hunt said. “I enjoy it. It’s something to get us loose and get us ready for practice. I get MEAC jokes all the time. Coming from the MEAC to here. My athleticism a little bit. We joke on that a little bit. I had to prove him wrong that I could hang on the rim. He saw that and I proved to the world that I can dunk the ball as everybody knows in here (Wolfpack locker room).”
Keatts believes his humor helps keep the team close, too. Injuries and transfers have whittled the active roster to nine scholarship players plus walk-on Spencer Newman.
At a team breakfast Wednesday morning, the players gathered at a table that didn’t have enough chairs for them all.
Keatts watched, curious to see how his team would handle it.
“You would think the other two guys would go to another table,” Keatts said. “But they’ve grown as a team. They slid over and pulled two more seats up to the table and everybody ate together and were joking with each other. They feed off each other. They are comfortable with each other. They have started to like each other both on and off the court. That’s special when you have a team like that.”