Trip to Italy as much about bonding as basketball for retooled Wolfpack

New coach Kevin Keatts and his NC State basketball team will leave Wednesday for an 11-day trip to Milan, Venice, Florence and Rome that will include three exhibition games

Eamon Queeney—North State Journal
Athletic Director Debbie Yow

RALEIGH — A hastily assembled group of basketball players will board a plane for Italy on Wednesday. By the time it returns home from its summer exhibition tour, new NC State coach Kevin Keatts is hoping his Wolfpack will feel more like a team.

“We’re trying to blend a lot of different guys together,” Keatts said at a media availability before heading overseas. “When you talk about our transfers, our returning guys and adding a freshman, I think (this trip) comes at a perfect time for us.”

Keatts inherited six holdovers from the team that went 15-17 under Mark Gottfried last season. In the four-plus months since he was hired from UNC Wilmington, the energetic 45-year-old and his staff have restocked their roster with two graduate transfers who are eligible immediately, two traditional transfers and a pair of incoming freshmen to go along with redshirt Lennard Freeman. The most recent addition, three-star point guard Braxton Beverly, was brought in only last week.

It’s a collection of talent so new to each other that even after nine practices in preparation for the trip, the players are still in the process of trying to figure out who everybody is.

“I work out with BeeJay (Anya) sometimes on the weekend and he’ll look around and say ‘I don’t know anybody on the team,'” Freeman of his graduated former teammate. “I look around and yeah, I really don’t know anybody. I know I’ve had practice with them, but I look at it like ‘I don’t know him, I haven’t seen him.’ But everybody’s cool. I feel like we’ve adapted quick and we’ve started to get to know each other.”

They’ll become a lot more familiar after their 11 days together in Italy, during which they’ll find the time to play three games against local competition between sightseeing visits to Milan, Venice, Florence and Rome.

Keatts will see to that by requiring his players to spend time with everyone on the team, not just the friends with whom they usually hang out. He’s also thinking about taking away their cellphones so they won’t be distracted by the internet or texts to and from the folks back home.

As far as the coach is concerned, the bonding process he hopes will take place on the trip is just as important — if not more so — than the basketball.

“We’re going to use this for many different things,” Keatts said. “Obviously, to come together as a group, to develop some chemistry and some bonding and obviously have the opportunity to play.”

When it comes to the games, Keatts is hoping to learn as much about his players as they learn about each other. The only team member who won’t make the trip is sophomore center Omer Yurtseven, who averaged 17 points and 11.4 rebounds per game while shooting 61 percent from the floor for the Turkish national team at the FIBA U21 European Championships in Greece last week.

“I couldn’t tell you what kind of lineups we’re going to play. I couldn’t tell you how many guys are going to play,” he said. “I wouldn’t worry about that, I wouldn’t panic. This trip is for our season. It’s a gauge to see what we need to work on and the things to prepare us for the season and not so much how well we play, how many points we score and what we do. It’s so I can see as a coach, get back and figure out which combinations played well together.”

The trip to Italy was originally scheduled to have been taken last season under Gottfried, but was postponed because of a terrorism travel alert issued by the U.S. State Department after several violent incidents throughout Europe.

Gottfried’s loss turned into Keatts’ gain after athletic director Debbie Yow decided to make a change following the season. It’s a fortunate turn of events the new Wolfpack coach acknowledged as he prepared to take his players out of the country.

“Sometimes you get these types of trips in the second or third (year) of your tenure,” Keatts said. “For me, it’s great because we get to go right away and I think it will be helpful for our guys moving forward.”