RALEIGH — For the first time since Kevin Keatts arrived in Raleigh, NC State may not need “Hi, my name is” tags to keep everyone straight.
The Wolfpack have had a revolving door as Keatts used graduate transfers to help bolster the team’s talent level.
Now, as he begins year three, Keatts finally has some roster stability.
“I like our team. I like our pieces,” Keatts said. “For the first time since I have been at NC State, we have the most returners that we have ever had, which is seven.”
The seven returning players are only two fewer than Keatts had in his first two seasons combined. It also includes six of the top seven scorers from last year’s team, which went 24-12 but missed out on an NCAA Tournament berth due to a weak nonconference schedule.
“Obviously, we were all a little disappointed about the outcome of not making the NCAA Tournament last year,” Keatts said, “but that being said, we put that behind us and we’re really focused on moving on.”
The returning players will use the snub as motivation.
“Not being able to go to the tournament, playing NIT, definitely experienced some hungry guys on the roster,” C.J. Bryce said. “Guys are ready to play this year.”
Bryce, who followed Keatts from UNC Wilmington three years ago, is one of four guards that will help State run the up-tempo offense that Keatts prefers. Bryce averaged 11.6 points last season, third-best on the team, to go with 1.8 assists and 1.1 steals.
Braxton Beverly (9.4 points, 2.5 assists) and Devon Daniels (9.3 points, 1.3 assists) will also be pushing the ball up court as opponents try to keep up.
Point guard Markell Johnson, however, will be the one triggering things at both ends of the floor. He is the team’s leading returning scorer (12.6 points). He also led the team in assists with 4.2 — good for sixth in the ACC — and tied for the lead in steals with 1.1. Just as importantly, Johnson had a 1.93 assist-to-turnover ratio, which Keatts would like to see improve even more this season.
“We take pride in obviously being in great shape towards the end of the game,” Keatts said of his running attack. “I think that one thing that we want to emphasize, and what we have been talking about in the practice, is we want to be a really low turnover team. What I mean by that, from us, obviously on the defensive end, we try to turn guys over as much as we can and create tempo, but we want to play fast but don’t want to turn the ball over ourselves.”
The guard attack will be bolstered by three-star freshman Dereon Seabron.
State also returns forward DJ Funderburk, who will miss the start of the season after getting suspended for a violation of team rules. He had 8.8 points and 4.2 rebounds last year coming off the bench. With Wyatt Walker gone this season, Funderburk will be the team’s man in the post.
State also must replace Torin Dorn, who led the team with 14.0 points and 7.2 rebounds last year.
Fortunately for State’s rebounding hopes, Keatts hasn’t completely blocked the revolving door. He brought in 6-foot-8 power forward Pat Andree as a graduate transfer from Lehigh. He averaged 12.9 points and 6.2 rebounds for the Mountain Hawks and will be able to provide size in the paint. He’s also hit 41.5 percent of his 3-point attempts, which fits right into Keatts’ offensive attack.
Manny Bates, a 6-foot-11 four-star recruit last year who redshirted the season, is also expected to play a major role inside for the Pack.
UMKC transfer Danny Dixon is a 6-foot-10 presence who averaged 7.5 points and 3.6 rebounds in a little over 19 minutes a game. He’s also shown the ability to shoot the three, hitting more than half in a limited number of attempts.
State should be better than last season, but the Pack may be sweating an NCAA Tournament bid again this year.
Their strength of schedule should be improved by playing an extra two conference games — the ACC moves to a 20-game schedule this season. State also has Auburn (22 in KenPom), Wisconsin (45) and Memphis (51) on their nonconference slate.
After that, however, State’s schedule is packed with the same bottom-dwellers as the one that cost them last season’s bid. State plays UNC Greensboro (108 in KenPom), and every other nonconference foe is 190 or lower. That includes UALR (190), App State (203), FIU (204), Detroit Mercy (252), St. Francis of Brooklyn (290), the Citadel (302) and Alcorn State (340).