NSJ Coach of the Year: After success at UNCW, Keatts jumped to the ACC and NC State

Up-tempo, attacking style moves north to Raleigh

Kevin Keatts led UNC Wilmington to two NCAA Tournament appearances and three consecutive CAA regular season titles before being named the new head coach at NC State. (Eamon Queeney / North State Journal)

The accomplishments Kevin Keatts had at UNC Wilmington this year were more than enough to earn him serious consideration for our Coach of the Year award.

The Seahawks won their third straight Colonial Athletic Association regular season title in Keatts’ three years at the helm, their first outright. In the postseason UNC Wilmington won its second straight CAA Tournament. In Keatts’ tenure as coach, the Seahawks won six of their seven CAA Tourney games.

With a 29-6 record, UNCW shattered the school record for wins in a season, which had been set the year before, at 25-8. The 15-3 CAA record also tied the school mark, set 15 years earlier by now-Clemson coach Brad Brownell.

Keatts, 45, went to the NCAA tournament for the second straight year, something that had happened just once before in school history, and gave No. 5 seed Virginia all it could handle before falling to the ACC power, 76-71. The Seahawks also put a scare into No. 4 seed Duke the previous year, leading at the half before losing by eight.

Keatts will get plenty of chances to get even with the Blue Devils and Cavaliers. Following the three seasons at UNCW that left him with the highest winning percentage in school history (.736, 61 points higher than Brownell), Keatts left for the vacant NC State job.

After a disappointing season that led to the firing of Mark Gottfried, NC State gave Keatts a roster of players filled with uncertainty over the new coach’s up-tempo system and whether they were a good fit.

Keatts posted a big victory by re-recruiting Omer Yurtseven, Abdul-Malik Abu and Lennard Freeman, convincing each of them to stay and selling them on his run-and-gun attack.

“Obviously, when you take over a program, everybody says, ‘These are not my guys,’” Keatts said. “The day I did the press conference, they became my guys.”

So far, the Pack has sprinted out of the gate, with Keatts urging them to find an even higher gear. The team is on a record-setting pace for forcing turnovers and set a PNC Arena record for assists in a game, as the Wolfpack showed energy, passion and a willingness to share the ball — all things that were sorely missing as the Gottfried era neared its end.

The Pack will likely find itself on the wrong end of the talent gap in many ACC games as the year goes on, but under Keatts, everyone on the squad seems to have bought in on the system, and the high-speed Wolfpack can be expected to spring a few upsets during conference play. The first came in the Battle 4 Atlantis Thanksgiving tournament, when NC State knocked off then-No. 2 Arizona in its opening game.

The excitement Keatts has brought back to the program also shows in the new coach’s success on the recruiting trail. Keatts has assembled the No. 16 class in the country for next season, including three four-star recruits.

As the architect of a pair of in-state basketball programs, Keatts has earned our nod as Coach of the Year.

Others considered: UNC men’s basketball’s
Roy Williams, NC A&T football’s Rod Broadway