Look Ahead — 2019 Team of the Year: The Wolfpack return to relevance on crowded Tobacco Road

Kevin Keatts is building a winner at NC State, and the second-year coach is aiming for even more

NC State coach Kevin Keatts has the Wolfpack back in the Top 25 early in his second season in Raleigh. (Karl B. DeBlaker / AP Photo)

A thousand red T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Kevin Keatts is a winner” were handed out to members of the student section at PNC Arena for NC State’s recent basketball game against Auburn.

Those words have become a popular catchphrase since they were first uttered by athletic director Debbie Yow at Keatts’ introduction as the Wolfpack’s coach in April 2017.

But as State’s 78-71 victory against the then seventh-ranked Tigers proved, the praise of Keatts is more than just lip service.

After a surprising first season in which he led the Wolfpack to 21 wins, a top-three finish in the ACC and a return to the NCAA tournament, the energetic young coach has his team off to another strong start.

State heads into the new year ranked among the nation’s top 20 with an 11-1 record against a competitive nonconference schedule.

Though neighboring rivals Duke and North Carolina are likely to finish higher in the polls and advance deeper into the NCAA Tournament when all is said and done in 2019, Keatts has the Wolfpack on a promising trajectory as its roster dominated by transfers continues to build chemistry and develop its roles.

“I’m excited,” Keatts said after the Auburn game that catapulted State into the national rankings for the first time this season. “We didn’t accidentally become 10-1. Our guys have worked extremely hard to get there. Hopefully, we’re going to continue to get better and stay hungry and stay humble.”

State began the season as an unknown quantity, with only three returning players from 2017-18.

The trio of guards Markell Johnson and Braxton Beverly along with versatile forward Torin Dorn has been the foundation of the team’s early success. But the Wolfpack wouldn’t be where it is now if not for the smooth transition made by its newcomers.

It helped that three of the transfers — C.J. Bryce from UNC Wilmington, Devon Daniels from Utah and Blake Harris from Missouri — spent all or part of last season in the program redshirting under NCAA rules.

But like graduate transfers Wyatt Walker from Troy and Eric Lockett from Florida International, junior college transfer D.J. Funderburk and freshman Jericole Hellems, none of them had ever played in an actual game together.

Arranging all those new pieces into a finished puzzle hasn’t been an easy task, which is why State was picked to finish eighth in the ACC this season. But Keatts was confident in his ability to blend all those strangers into a cohesive unit, drawing from his experience at Hargrave Military Academy where he essentially had to build a new team from scratch every year.

“I’m not saying that I’m the only one in college basketball that can withstand a new roster,” Keatts said back in October. “But if anybody’s equipped to do it, it’s me.”

It helps that the roster Keatts has assembled allows him to play the style made him successful throughout his career, including his most recent stop at UNCW.

Although the Wolfpack is thin in the low post and could have trouble rebounding against bigger opponents thanks to a season-ending injury to freshman Manny Bates and the transfer after just one game of fellow rookie Ian Steere, the team has the quickness to play a frenzied up-tempo style that attacks on both ends of the floor.

It also has depth, with all 10 of its scholarship players averaging between 25 and 13 minutes, and each possessing the ability to have a big scoring game on any given night.

That was vividly illustrated in State’s 98-71 victory against USC Upstate, in which the Wolfpack’s bench outscored its starters 62-36. The leading scorer in that game was Lockett, who didn’t play a single minute against Auburn.

“It’s definitely cool to have a deep team and a team where even if you have an off night, you have guys that can pick up the slack for you,” Dorn said. “That’s the mark of a good team, having multiple guys that can come in and make a difference.”

With wins against Auburn, Penn State and Vanderbilt to go along with a close loss at Wisconsin, the Wolfpack has already proven itself to be a good team. As it approaches the new year and the start of the conference schedule, Keatts has State on pace to become even better.

“I just look at the rankings when it comes time to pick the teams for the NCAA Tournament.” he said. “I want myself and my team to have the opportunity to win the conference regular season and the ACC Tournament.”