RALEIGH — Prior to joining the college coaching ranks, Kevin Keatts spent a decade as head coach of Hargrave Military Academy. The experience of coaching the 2018-19 Wolfpack should bring back memories.
“In those 10 years as head coach, I had 103 guys sign Division I,” Keatts recalled. “So we were able to put in a system where guys would play as hard as they could for as long as they could, and then raise their hand up, and then I would put five more guys in. That being said, every year I lost my whole roster.”
Last year in his first season as NC State coach, Keatts estimates he installed about 75 percent of his relentlessly up-tempo system, but the players adapted to it quickly and saw immediate success, winning 11 ACC games, including upsets of Duke and UNC.
“Last year’s team did some great things,” he said. “Those guys bought into my system and played our style.”
This year, just like at Hargrave, Keatts pretty much has to wipe the slate clean and start over.
Guard Braxton Beverly, who averaged 9.5 points, 3.9 assists and shot .385 from outside last year, suffered a broken hand in the preseason. That means the Pack will start the season with exactly two returning players from last year’s squad.
The roster turnover presents a significant challenge — “I’m looking for chemistry,” Keatts says of his early-season goals — but it also gave him the chance to rebuild the team in his image.
“I think we have the pieces to play the way we want to play,” he said. “Hopefully, now, we’ll get up to 90 to 95 percent of the system in.”
That will allow State to play hard, substitute freely, and spark its offense by forcing turnovers on the other end of the floor — in other words, the same style that toppled Duke, Carolina and gave other ACC foes fits.
The team doesn’t have the size of last year, when Omer Yurtseven and Lennard Freeman gave the Wolfpack the ability to score inside and out and guard the post.
That doesn’t seem to worry Keatts.
“The big who played best for us last year was Omer,” he said, “and he was coming off a freshman campaign where he didn’t have the best year. He stepped up.”
One of the three big men on the roster will be expected to take similar strides to Yurtseven, and develop into a reliable player down under.
D.J. Funderburk, a former Ohio State signee and the top JUCO player in the nation, will get a chance to step forward. He scored 20 points in the team’s exhibition game against Chowan, going 7-for-7 from the field.
Keatts also has 6-foot-9 Wyatt Walker, a graduate transfer from Samford. The former third-team All-Southern Conference player only took three shots against Chowan, scoring two points, but his five assists were second on the team to point guard Markell Johnson.
“Wyatt did a tremendous job rebounding the ball,” Keatts said, “and he’s a great passer.”
Freshman Ian Steere, a 261-pound force underneath, added seven points and four boards.
“I think the three bigs help me sleep a little better, knowing they can contribute in different ways,” Keatts said. “The word for this team is versatility. I think that’s what we have on this year’s team.”
Then there are the returning players — Torin Dorn, who scored 13.9 points and averaged 6.3 rebounds last year, and Johnson, who, in addition to his 7.3 assists per game, scored 8.9 points.
There’s also one other returning player who, while new to Wolfpack fans, is a very familiar face to Keatts. C.J. Bryce played two years for Keatts at UNC Wilmington and followed his coach to State. He had to sit out last year, but Bryce scored 17.4 points per game the last time he played. Plus, he’s more familiar with what the coach is trying to do in his system than anyone else on the team.
Another transfer, former Utah guard Devon Daniels, also sat out last year due to NCAA transfer rules. That gave him a year to learn the system in practice.
So, while Dorn and Johnson are the two most familiar faces to the Pack faithful, Bryce and Daniels give Keatts a core group that’s experienced everywhere but on the floor in front of crowds together.
“Those four guys, I think, have to play well,” Keatts said. “Everybody else has to follow.”
Then, perhaps, things can get a little more stable for Keatts’ roster. If not, he’s fine with that, too.
“I’m not saying that I’m the only one in college basketball that can, you know, withstand a new roster,” he said, “but if anybody’s equipped to do it, it’s me.”