NC State hits home run on first pitch with Keatts hire

After two tumultuous coaching searches, Wolfpack administration makes quick -- but outstanding -- choice with new mens basketball coach

Madeline Gray—North State Journal
UNC Wilmington Head Coach Kevin Keatts yells to his team as they take on Campbell University at Gore Arena in Buies Creek on Wednesday

One interview was all it took. Kevin Keatts to Raleigh just made sense for both sides, and it didn’t take long for either to figure that out.The former UNCW coach made a beeline from Wilmington following his NCAA Tournament loss on Thursday straight to Raleigh on Friday. After word spread that he was being interviewed for the position, it was clear that NC State Athletics Director Debbie Yow wasn’t going to let him leave the Triangle.”Kevin Keatts has what I call ‘The Stuff,'” Yow said during Sunday’s press conference. “Which is the right mindset, ability and wisdom to maximize success. … He loves hard practices and expects the most out of our player. He’s a grinder and I say that with a great deal of respect.”Keatts hasn’t just won at every stop, he’s helped transform programs. Sure, he was under Rick Pitino at Louisville during his tenure, but the team went to a Final Four and won a national championship in three years thanks to his relentless recruiting.Some of the prized recruits Keatts brought to the Cardinals were Montrezl Harrell, a Tarboro, N.C. native, Anton Gill, a former Hargrave Military Academy guard, and Terry Rozier. Harrell was a player offered by both Clemson and Miami, but stolen right underneath the noses of North Carolina, Duke and NC State.His time in Louisville put him on the map, but his latest stop saw him give UNCW a complete facelift. The Seahawks hadn’t been a winning team since the Brad Brownell era, another coach who eventually found his way to the ACC with Clemson. UNCW had one winning season in the previous eight years and had not reached the postseason over that span. The Hawks went 72-28 in three seasons under Keatts.When Keatts took over, the program immediately posted a 12-6 record in the CAA to win a share of the regular season title. The success continued the following season, winning 25 games and the CAA regular season along with the tournament to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 10 years.The 2016-17 season was Keatts’ prize jewel — a historically great campaign in Wilmington that resulted in a program-record 29 wins. The team also set records for 3-pointers made and attempted, which included a ridiculous 21 treys against Delaware midway through the conference slate.Keatts did nearly as much as he possibly could with the Seahawks outside of maybe winning an NCAA Tournament game. He was also set to lose three of his top five scorers next season, making his exit understandable from a mid-major team that he built from the ground up.Now the facelift begins at NC State for Keatts. The fast-rising head coach comes to Raleigh with similar tumult he faced in Wilmington with two straight losing seasons. As of right now, only Thomas Allen from Garner is a guarantee for next season with talented players like Markell Johnson and Ted Kapita still seemingly on the fence. But much like his predecessor and his former boss in Rick Pitino, Keatts knows how to piece together a winning roster under difficult circumstances.Just look at his last two years at UNCW. Keatts’ top players were Chris Flemmings, a walk-on from Barton, C.J. Bryce, a no-star recruit from Huntersville, and Denzel Ingram, an undersized point guard transfer from Charlotte. It was a hodgepodge group that Keatts turned into a two-time CAA Tournament champion.But don’t tell Keatts he built his UNCW teams on transfers from other schools. Keatts prides himself on bringing in top recruits that also fit his fast-paced system on both ends of the court. After rattling off his past recruits like Bryce and Cacok at UNCW along with Harrell and Rozier with the Cards, Keatts went over what it takes to succeed on the recruiting trail.”Recruiting is all about who your head coach is, which is me, and it’s all about your resources, which we have great resources,” Keatts said. “It’s about your ability to get a great education, which we know that’s going to happen because this is an unbelievable institution for that. And it’s about the people that you have around you and the passionate fan base.”When you add all of those together, we’ve got something special. We’re not just going to settle for recruits. We’re going to go after some of the best recruits in the country.”Shaun Kirk, a player who Keatts missed out on at UNCW as a recruit, was ecstatic to learn he would be taking over the program. If anyone has a firsthand account of what Keatts is like as a recruiter, it’s the Whiteville, N.C. native.”He’s not the type of coach who just tells you what you want to hear,” Kirk said. “He’s straightforward with you and wants the best for you as a person. That’s what makes him a great recruiter.”So would Keatts being at an ACC school instead of Wilmington have swayed Kirk’s decision?”It may have,” Kirk said with a smile. “I get along with him very well and I respect him very much. I feel like that would have changed just a little bit because of his style of play. That would have made a big difference.”Look, that’s not to say Keatts will just immediately do that with NC State. In a 15-team ACC that was clearly the top conference in the country this year, toppling the likes of North Carolina, Duke, Virginia and his former team Louisville is not going to be accomplished right away.More than the success he brings to Raleigh, Keatts brings energy and youth to the Triangle with both Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams inching closer to retirement. At 44 years old, Keatts is nine years younger than Mark Gottfried and enters a completely different scenario than the one Gottfried took over in 2011.Keatts and NC State feels like a perfect mesh for the future. And after making two — let’s call them forced — decisions in the last two coaching searches, the Wolfpack struck early with Keatts. While the move may have been a year early with Keatts’ star still rising, it was the perfect one for Yow and NC State.