While N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts used the words “excited” and “flattered” to describe coaching an ACC team in league play for the first time this past weekend, he also admitted his first go-around is an uphill battle.
“The disappointing thing for me is, with this team, we have a low margin for error,” Keatts said after the Wolfpack’s 78-62 loss at Clemson last Saturday. “When you look at us, we are not as talented as most teams in the ACC.”
Keatts is getting a quick lesson in just how far behind his program is, compared to other league teams, in the five games over his first two weeks of ACC play.
Clemson (12-1, 1-0 ACC) entered the Associated Press rankings at No. 25 after its win over the Wolfpack. On Wednesday night, N.C. State (10-4, 0-1) plays at Notre Dame (11-3, 1-0), a preseason top 25 team that is currently receiving votes but is three spots out of the rankings.
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On Saturday, No. 2 Duke (13-1, 1-1) will face the Wolfpack in Raleigh. N.C. State’s first two weeks of ACC play also include a rematch with Clemson on Jan. 11 at home and a trip to No. 8 Virginia (12-1, 1-0) on Jan. 14.
It’s neither surprising to Keatts that the ACC schedule is loaded, nor is it shocking to hear him say his team is undermanned. After all, he took over a program that went 16-17 and 15-17 in former coach Mark Gottfried’s final two seasons.
Senior forward Abdul-Malik Abu (6-8, 240 pounds) was slowed early this season by a sprained knee ligament. Starting point guard Markell Johnson was suspended Dec.14 after he being indicted for felony assault.
Even with Abu back in the starting lineup, Keatts is using an eight-man rotation. He’s preaching togetherness, in spirit and in action, to help the Wolfpack improve.
“We have to play together both on the offensive and defensive ends,” Keatts said.
He saw too many breakdowns, particularly on defense, against Clemson. His players agreed.
“One of our main focuses on the defensive side was to stop them in transition,” senior forward Lennard Freeman said. “In the half-court, I feel like we did a lot of ball watching. We got back-doored. They back-cut a lot. We’ve just got to keep our head on a swivel. Keep our eyes on our man and the ball and we can clean that up.”
The Wolfpack knows they have to get better in a hurry to avoid getting buried in the ACC standings.
In Ken Pomeroy’s analytical ratings, only the Big 12 is above the ACC among Division I leagues nationwide.
The Wolfpack is No. 83 in kenpom.com’s ratings. Only No. 137 Georgia Tech (6-7, 0-1) and No. 170 Pittsburgh (8-6, 0-1) are lower.
Notre Dame is No. 28, Duke No. 4, Clemson No. 21 and Virginia No. 5.
So Keatts and the Wolfpack face a tough task in navigating their remaining 17 regular-season games. Keatts is not giving up, though.
“We have such a small margin for error we all have to be on the same page, and that’s what we have to figure out,” Keatts said.
He’s trying to piece together a quality team from senior forwards Abu and Lennard Freeman, junior transfer forward Torin Dorn, graduate transfer guards Allerik Freeman and Sam Hunt, sophomore center Omer Yurtseven and freshmen guards Braxton Beverly and Lavar Batts.
“My toughest thing is I’ve got a couple of seniors, I’ve got two freshmen, I’ve got two fifth-year transfers,” Keatts said. “I’m trying to get them to play as a team like Clemson, which has played together for a long time. It’s all part of building a program. Obviously we knew it would be tough in year one. We will continue to improve, and we will get better.”
N.C. State showed it is capable of playing better than it did against Clemson. The 90-84 win on Nov. 22 over then-No. 2 Arizona is an example of N.C. State’s capabilities. The Wildcats struggled that week in the Bahamas, but they are currently ranked No. 14 in both the AP top 25 rankings and in the kenpom.com ratings.
Johnson played 22 minutes against Arizona, finishing with one point, two rebounds, two blocks and eight assists. It’s unclear when or if he’ll return to the team.
So Keatts and the Wolfpack press on, knowing they need more out of the players who remain.
“We talked about one game doesn’t define you in the ACC,” Keatts said. “It’s how much better can you get from game to game. Certainly we have to go to work and get better in certain areas.”
NC State at Notre Dame
When: 9 p.m., Wednesday
Where: Purcell Pavillion, Notre Dame, Ind.
TV: ACC Network