Kevin Keatts has put together a roster with experience, depth and versatility.
It’s the perfect mix for the up-tempo system the NC State basketball coach likes to run. But it could turn out to be even better suited for a 2020-21 season shrouded by the uncertainty of the worsening coronavirus pandemic.
“I wish it was a perfect 2020 because now we feel confident that on every given night, you’ll finally get a chance to see our system fully implemented,” said Keatts, who is entering his fourth season as the leader of the Wolfpack. “Obviously, we know that we’re going to have some challenges, just because everybody else will. But that being said, I love our roster. I love our versatility. I love the fact that guys can play multiple positions.”
A deep bench and the ability to mix and match players in different roles, especially point guard, can’t help but be a valuable asset at a time in which positive COVID-19 tests and contact tracing have the potential to derail a team at a moment’s notice.
Just as important is the veteran leadership to hold things together in the almost inevitable event of adversity.
And State has plenty of that to go around.
The Wolfpack returns five players that started 15 or more games last season, including three seniors. Two of those players — D.J. Funderburk and Devon Daniels — are All-ACC caliber, even though both were passed over in the league’s preseason vote.
Funderburk is a 6-foot-10 big man who can play both center and power forward, a position at which he flourished once he was moved there in a big lineup that also included sophomore shot-blocking ace Manny Bates.
Funderburk finished second on the team in scoring (12.8 points per game) and rebounding (6.1 rebounds) while posting the third-highest single-season field goal percentage in school history.
Daniels, meanwhile, is a 6-foot-5 transfer from Utah who came into his own last season — his second with the Wolfpack — when he stopped settling for perimeter jumpers and began attacking the basket and getting to the free-throw line.
He has the ability to play both guard positions, as well as the wing in a small lineup.
“It’s always important to have seniors to return,” Keatts said. “We’re fortunate that we do, I think more so in Devon’s situation, to have a veteran guard who we can make the argument that at the end of the year was playing the best basketball out of any guard we had on our team.
“When you look at D.J., he brings something different to us because he has the ability to play the center position and also some power forward. Having both back is a major plus.”
It also helps that the third senior, combo guard Braxton Beverly, is healthy again after battling a back issue that adversely affected his shooting touch all last season.
Adding to the veteran core is 6-foot-7 junior Jericole Hellems, a proven scorer who has improved in each of his first two seasons and has played every position on the floor except center. Bates, a 6-foot-11 redshirt sophomore who set a school freshman record with 83 blocked shots in 2019-20, has added bulk to go along with a few new offensive moves, while 6-foot-1 junior guard Thomas Allen has been added to the mix after sitting out last year following his transfer from Nebraska.
But for all the Wolfpack’s experience, the bulk of its roster is made up of newcomers making their college debuts.
It’s a group highlighted by a five-man freshman class that still ranks among the ACC’s best even after losing five-star wing Josh Hall to the professional ranks. The two most likely candidates to make major contributions among a group that also includes big men Jaylon Gibson and Ebenezer Dowuona and forward Nick Farrar are guards Cam Hayes and Shakeel Moore.
Hayes, at 6-foot-7, is the most polished of the rookies, while the 6-foot-1 Moore is a pure playmaking point guard. They figure to be the first two options at replacing graduated point guard Markell Johnson — although Keatts is still hedging his bets on the idea of starting an untested rookie.
“Do we start off with some veteran guys and then bring those guys in and let them play after watching the game for a little bit? It’s completely up in the air,” Keatts said. “I probably won’t know until Wednesday (against Charleston Southern) who’s going to be our starting point. That being said, we’re not in a situation where I don’t feel good about it. I think all of those guys bring something to the table.”
The X-factor among the new additions is Dereon Seabron, a 6-foot-7 redshirt freshman Keatts called the most versatile player on the team.
After spending most of last season on the bubble of an NCAA Tournament that wasn’t played because of COVID-19, the Wolfpack is hoping the influx of young talent will be the stimulus that gets the experienced core over the postseason hump this year.
“Throughout the three or four years I’ve been here, this is the first time we’ve had a big group of freshmen come in like this,” Daniels said. “We can really see the difference. Those guys are hungry. Those guys want to play, and they’re pushing us as a group to get better every day.”