Keatts has Wolfpack back dancing in his first year on the job

If NC State can survive its first round game against Seton Hall, a likely matchup with top-seeded Kansas awaits

Center Omer Yurtseven will be a key if NC State wants to make a deep run into the NCAA tournament (Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY

NC State’s early ouster from last week’s ACC Tournament was disappointing, but it had little effect on the Wolfpack’s chances of getting into the field for the tournament that’s the goal of every college basketball team.

Still, having missed out on the last two NCAA tournaments, junior forward Torin Dorn wasn’t taking anything for granted until the bid became official Sunday afternoon.

“I’ve never been able to watch the selection show with hopes my team would be in it, so it was fun,” Dorn said. “A little nervous … but once you see your name on that board, it’s like relief. We’re in!”

For State, the accomplishment of getting into the NCAA’s field of 68 as the No. 9 seed in the Midwest Region is heightened by the fact the team was picked to finish 12th in the ACC going into the season.

Only three players on the team’s roster — seniors Abdul-Malik Abu and Lennard Freeman along with graduate transfer Allerik Freeman — have played in an NCAA Tournament game, making Thursday’s opening round matchup against No. 8 Seton Hall a special occasion for first-year coach Kevin Keatts and his team.

“It means a lot,” Keatts said Monday. “We don’t take it for granted.”

At the same time, Keatts is determined for his team to enjoy the experience and not come out tight like it did in last Wednesday’s ACC Tournament loss to Boston College in Brooklyn.

The Wolfpack (21-11) finally loosened up and began looking more like itself during the final 10 minutes of that game. But after falling behind by as many as 16, it was never able to come all the way back and win.

“I don’t know the other 67 teams that are in there and what they’re going to do, but we’re going to go into this tournament and try to have the most fun that we can have this week,” Keatts said. “We’re going to prepare, and I want our guys to be excited about it. All I’m going to ask our guys to do is what we’ve asked them to do all year, just to come out and play hard and compete.”

In Seton Hall, the Wolfpack will play an experienced postseason team that will be making its third straight NCAA Tournament appearance.

Should it advance, State would earn a date with the region’s top seed, Kansas. It’s a similar scenario to the one it faced three years ago, when the Wolfpack upset Villanova to advance to the Sweet 16.

This year’s team already has experience beating highly rated opponents, with victories against Arizona, Duke and North Carolina to its credit.

Not that Keatts or his players have the luxury of looking that far ahead.

“If you don’t compete like it’s your last game … you’ve got to leave everything on the floor for 40 minutes,” Keatts said. “You don’t worry about the next game; you don’t worry about rest. You have to stay in the moment and worry about that particular game.”

Here’s how State’s potential NCAA Tournament road shakes out:

• First round: No. 8 Seton Hall (21-11), Wichita, Kan., Thursday, 4:30 p.m., TBS. The Pirates are nearly a mirror-image of the Wolfpack — good enough to beat NCAA Tournament teams Texas Tech, Butler and Providence, but also inconsistent enough to lose to Big East bottom feeders Rutgers and Georgetown. One area in which Pirates will have an advantage is NCAA Tournament experience, having gone in each of the past two seasons.

• Possible second-round matchup: If State is able to survive its first-round game, a date with top-seeded Kansas awaits barring an upset of historic proportions. The Jayhawks, who play 16th-seeded Penn on Thursday, are coming off their record 14th-straight Big 12 championship using a four-guard attack led by Wooden Award candidate and Raleigh native Devonte Graham. There could potentially be a chink in Kansas’ armor if its one big man, Udoka Azubuike, isn’t able to play after missing the Big 12 Tournament with a knee injury.

• Possible paths beyond week one: It’s a long shot, of course, but if State were able to upset the Jayhawks and move on to the second week in Omaha, it could potentially face ACC rival Clemson — a team it split two games with this season — in the Sweet 16. Other possibilities include No. 4 Auburn, No. 12 New Mexico State and No. 13 College of Charleston. The top teams on the other side of the bracket are second-seeded Duke and No. 3 Michigan.