NC State’s Keatts: ‘This season will always be remembered by me because...nobody thought we could win and we are in Kansas playing’
From a personal standpoint, Allerik Freeman came to N.C. State from Baylor with an NCAA tournament history and used his one year with the Wolfpack to add to it.
From a program standpoint, Freeman and the players coach Kevin Keatts cobbled together to form a team last summer set the foundation for NCAA tournaments appearances that should come with more frequency.
Freeman, who led the Wolfpack (21-12) in scoring this season, capped off his lone season at N.C. State with a valiant 36-point performance in a 94-83 Midwest Region first-round loss to Seton Hall on Thursday.
The No. 8 seed Pirates led the entire game, despite Freeman’s push to extend his career another game, as ninth-seeded N.C. State battled but never caught up.
When it was over, Keatts took pride in what the Wolfpack accomplished this season. After the Wolfpack posted two losing seasons before Mark Gottfried was fired, Keatts took over a program with low expectations and led it to 11 ACC wins and its first NCAA tournament berth since 2015.
“When I took the job, I didn't want to just have a team,” Keatts said. “I wanted to build a program. And I thought these guys, when you look at every guy in our locker room, they did a tremendous job.
“A lot of these guys came to play for me before they even knew how I was going to play. And the guys in the program stood by us, and I'm proud of them.”
Sad that his college career is done, Freeman took pride his role in restoring a winning attitude in the Wolfpack's program with Keatts at the helm.
Freeman never bought into the preseason predictions that had N.C. State finishing 12th in the ACC, struggling to post a winning season.
And he leaves believing that even bigger things are coming for the Wolfpack.
"I don't think we overachieved as far as our standards,” Freeman said. “I think we overachieved as far as the standards that you guys put on us. But when you are a winner, it’s in your blood and you don't accept losing. I can't speak for what happened here last year or the year before that or whatever the case may be. But when you have a head coach that won't accept losing and is a no nonsense guy, it will only be a matter of time before these guys are in the Final Four."
The Wolfpack ran into a more experienced, physically stronger Seton Hall team Thursday. The Pirates had been to the NCAA tournament each of the last two seasons only to be sent home without a win.
They were hungry to change that on this trip and did so by pushing past the Wolfpack.
Coupled with a 91-87 upset loss to Boston College at the ACC tournament last week, N.C. State lost its two postseason games.
But that doesn’t diminish what the Wolfpack accomplished this season: Wins over Arizona, Duke, North Carolina, Clemson and Syracuse are why N.C. State joined those five schools in the NCAA tournament.
Keatts’ plan is to have a program that plays in the NCAA tournament every season, one that regularly competes with and beats the ACC’s top teams. Yes, that includes neighbors UNC and Duke, two of college basketball’s ruling class.
This season, he used graduate transfers Freeman and Sam Hunt, two true freshmen in Braxton Beverly and Lavar Batts, a senior forward in Lennard Freeman who had battled injuries throughout his career and four returning players in Markell Johnson, Abdul-Malik Abu, Torin Dorn and Omer Yurtseven to set the foundation for even more success to come.
“I heard the noise about overachieving and I never wanted to say that because I didn’t want to cheat the guys in the locker room that work hard all the time,” Keatts said. “But these guys played pretty doggone good to put us in this position we were in here.”
Abu, Lennard Freeman and Allerik Freeman saw their careers end Thursday. But Dorn, Johnson and Beverly — three starters — are set to return. A fourth starter, Yurtseven, also has two seasons remaining but will have to decide if he wants to explore professional basketball as he did a year ago.
There will be plenty of new talent for the Wolfpack next season. Transfer guards C.J. Bryce, Devon Daniels and Blake Harris practiced with the team while sitting out under transfer rules.
The incoming freshmen include four-star recruits in 6-9 forwards Ian Steere and Immanuel Bates as well as 6-7 small forward Saddiq Bey and 6-6 wing Jericole Hellems.
Derek Funderburk, a 6-10 forward, will arrive as a junior college transfer to help fill the void in the middle.
“I think the program is in good hands,” Abu said. “It’s a bright future ahead. They are bringing in a lot of talent next year, a lot of guys that were sitting out. This year I'm just glad we put the world on notice, even if it was just for a little bit, that State is a force. I’m just looking forward to it.”
Sports Writer Steve Wiseman: 919-419-6671, email@example.com @SteveWisemanNC