Three years ago, Kevin Keatts stood before a team of players who had never met him before with a simple message: “You can change your fate. What you did in the first three years, especially the seniors, nobody will care if you play well this year and you win a championship. And we did.”
That’s what he told his first UNC Wilmington team, a group of players who had never finished above. 500. It’s pretty much the same message he had for his new players at N.C. State after meeting them Saturday.
The degree of difficulty in taking over a basketball team that hasn’t won in years, just got its coach fired and may be overmatched in its conference is generally underrated. Even the most talented coach usually needs a year or two to clean out dead wood, bring in his kind of players and implement his system. The outliers stand out, guys like Keatts and Eric Musselman at Nevada.
All of which makes what Keatts did in his first season at UNCW perhaps more impressive than the next two, when the Seahawks lost first-round NCAA tournament games to ACC opponents. The Seahawks had won all of 29 games over the previous three seasons, but won 18 in Keatts’ first year, and without a ton of roster turnover. It was coaching at its most elemental: motivating, developing, teaching. Four starters who finished last in the CAA one season won a regular-season title in the next.
“The first game of the year, we had to go to Old Dominion. We were leading at halftime, but you could tell they weren’t comfortable with leading,” Keatts said Tuesday morning, his new office devoid of any personal items, the roster on his desk still listing Mark Gottfried as coach.
“They hadn’t won any games. I don’t think they’d even won a road game in two years. I knew then, we could be competitive, but I knew we had to change the mindset.”
By Year 3, when Keatts had his own recruits out there and had bolstered the roster with a few transfers, UNCW had become the CAA’s dominant program.
The general assumption is that Keatts’ first season at N.C. State will be a rebuilding one, and for good reason. Even if Keatts can convince the majority of the roster to stay – which means keeping Abdul-Malik Abu and Omer Yurtseven from turning pro and anyone else from transferring; Terry Henderson’s potential sixth year of eligibility is out of anyone’s control – the Wolfpack would have only one potential star, Abu, and a very thin backcourt.
The ACC is the deep end of the pool, and if enough players leave, it’ll be a moot point anyway. But his experience in Wilmington at least offers hope for a quick turnaround, or at least a less painful transition than most might expect.
His first UNCW team took a trip to the Bahamas, which helped accelerate the process; N.C. State is still eligible to take the summer trip to Italy it canceled last year. His first UNCW team was better defensively (ranked 134th nationally in efficiency) than N.C. State was last season (231st), which suggests the potential for improvement via coaching alone. And the natural and inevitable dynamic of any coaching change – players who forgot where the weight room was suddenly scrambling to get in and lift – should have a beneficial effect.
Will that be enough to make N.C. State competitive? The ACC landscape is changing as well. Louisville and Virginia figure to be the ACC’s dominant programs and national-title contenders next year, with Duke and North Carolina both reloading, to an extent. As things stand, the Wolfpack will probably be expected to finish ahead of only Pittsburgh and Boston College. But N.C. State plays Georgia Tech twice and gets Pittsburgh and Syracuse at home, all winnable games, even if .500 in ACC play is probably out of reach.
Winning anywhere close to nine games in the ACC would be something, considering the Wolfpack has won a total of nine the past two seasons. That’s more or less the kind of improvement Keatts provoked in his first year at Wilmington. It doesn’t seem likely, but his record suggests it’s not impossible.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock