Keatts not sure what to expect from his rusty Wolfpack against UNC

NC State will return from its second 10-day COVID-19 related pause when it takes on the rival Tar Heels in Chapel Hill on Saturday

Freshman point guard Shakeel Moore had 17 points in NC State’s win over rival UNC during the first meeting between the teams (Ethan Hyman / The News & Observer via AP)

The first time the NC State basketball team returned from a COVID-19 related pause this season, coach Kevin Keatts added a game against St. Louis to help his team get back into game shape before facing archrival North Carolina in its ACC opener.

This time he won’t have the luxury of scheduling a tuneup.

The Wolfpack will jump right back into conference play when it returns to the court for the first time in 10 days on Saturday.

And when it does, the opponent will once again be the Tar Heels.

“When I leave and we’re headed out to the game, I’m going to feel good about my group, but I don’t know how my team will react with 10 days off and not really having everybody on the floor at the same time,” said Keatts, whose team suffered its worst loss of the season — a 105-73 drubbing at Florida State — one day before being shut down by its latest COVID outbreak. “I hope we’ve learned, but this will be a tough game to judge anything from because I know the last time we played at Florida State, Florida State played like they could have beaten the Lakers that day. 

“I wish I had a game in between or I wish I didn’t have a layoff where I could have seen my team a little bit more. We’re going to come out and play. Our guys are excited about getting back on the court. But as far as how we play and how much rust we have on us, I couldn’t answer that.”

How State reacts to its extended layoff will likely depend on how many players it has available and how healthy those players are.

The Wolfpack (6-4, 2-3 ACC) were shorthanded the last time it faced such a situation. Starters D.J. Funderburk and Cam Hayes both missed the game at St. Louis, and the lack of manpower took its toll when the team ran out of gas in the second half.

With all five starters playing 30 or more minutes, State was outscored 51-34 over the final 20 minutes to see a six-point halftime lead turn into an 80-69 loss.

“We played Saint Louis and we had a great first half,” Keatts said. “I’m going to say the reason why we didn’t have a good second half is because we just didn’t have enough bodies.”

Keatts didn’t give any hints as to who would and wouldn’t be in the lineup during a Zoom conference on Friday, other than to say he hopes sophomore big man Manny Bates and senior guard Braxton Beverly — both of whose issues were not COVID-related — would be ready to contribute.

He did, however, acknowledge that this latest pause was the result of three positive tests upon the team’s return home from Tallahassee.

“It’s tough because I find myself waiting for test results pretty much every day,” Keatts said. “When we got back from Florida State, we had our first positive with a Tier I. Honestly, we couldn’t figure out where it came from. We had to stop, and then a couple days later we ended up with another one. 

“I think we had three of them, which is tough because every time you get one more you have to go back and figure out how was that person involved with somebody else.”

Because the pandemic has presented such an unprecedented set of circumstances, the State coach said that there’s no way to know how to prepare for it.

Although his players are wearing contact tracing devices to help limit their exposure to the virus, Keatts lamented that the precautions are anything but fool-proof.

“I get this debate all the time, with ‘why don’t you do what so and so is doing? They don’t have any breakouts.’” he said. “It’s not necessarily true. It just depends. Maybe some teams had a bunch of guys that got infected in the summertime. For example, our women’s team was rolling.

“Wes (Moore) and I were talking every day. We were comparing notes on how to do this and all of a sudden it happens. It’s going to happen to everybody, unfortunately. In our situation I feel bad for our kids because it happened to us, and it happened to happen when we had some injuries, too.”

If the Wolfpack has anything going for it, it’s that it beat UNC in the earlier meeting in Raleigh, getting off to a fast start and holding on for a 79-76 victory.

According to Keatts, though, coach Roy Williams’ Tar Heels (9-5, 4-3) are a different team than they were on Dec. 22.

“They’ve gotten a lot better,” he said. “They’re one of the programs, when you look at it, that hasn’t had to pause in a while. (Caleb) Love and RJ Davis are playing really good basketball. It seems like they’re becoming a little bit more comfortable.

“Of course, any time you’re going to play Carolina one of the things that they hang their hats on is that they are a tremendous rebounding team. They get out in transition, as you know. (Armando) Bacot has become a really tremendous low-post scorer. He’s done a good job. They’re playing with a lot of confidence. They are shooting the ball better than when we played them and I also think they are taking care of the basketball.”