NIT opportunity a win-win situation for NC State

When the Wolfpack takes on Davidson in the opening round of the 16-team event, it will be an opportunity for its young players to get more experience

Cam Hayes is one of three NC State freshmen who will benefit from the experience of playing in the NIT (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)

There are two kinds of teams in the NIT. 

One would rather be playing in the NCAA Tournament. The other is happy to still be playing anywhere.

As far as NC State coach Kevin Keatts is concerned, his team falls into the latter category.

“From what I’ve seen from our guys the last couple of days, I see excitement,” Keatts said in a Zoom conference from Denton, Tex., where his Wolfpack will take on in-state opponent Davidson on Thursday in the first round of the COVID-shortened NIT.

“I see guys that want to play. We’re blessed to be one of 84 teams left to be playing in our season. I think that’s important.”

Keatts was unsure if State would be included in that group after an 89-68 loss to Syracuse in the ACC Tournament last week.

He said at the time that the Wolfpack’s participation in a postseason event other than the NCAA would only happen if it was in “the best interest of our team moving forward” and only under strict safety protocols.

All it took was one conversation with veteran players D.J. Funderburk, Braxton Beverly, Jericole Hellems and Manny Bates to decide to say yes when the NIT bid was extended on Sunday.

“I wanted to get a feel for the temperature from those guys and what they thought about advancing,” Keatts said. “All four of those guys actually said yes. 

“I doubled back with them two days later just to make sure and I did it individually, because I didn’t want them to do it as a group. I didn’t want the pressure to come from me or them to hear how I felt about it. Each one of those guys said yes.”

The Wolfpack (13-10) is the No. 3 seed in one of the four-team pods in the NIT’s 16-team field. It’s opening round opponent Davidson (13-8) is the No. 2 seed.

The winner earns a quarterfinal date with either top-seeded Colorado State or No. 4 Buffalo on Saturday in Frisco, Tex.

Memphis, Ole Miss and St. Louis are the other No. 1 seeds.

While bring home the tournament championship is the obvious goal of everyone in the tournament, Keatts said that the opportunity for freshmen Cam Hayes, Shakeel Moore and Dereon Seabron to play more games and wash away the bad taste of the Syracuse game heading into the offseason makes the NIT a win-win situation for State regardless of the outcome.

“I want those guys to grow,” Keatts said, adding that one game at the ACC Tournament wasn’t enough for the young players to get a true read for what the postseason is like. “That was their first ACC Tournament and people don’t understand that it’s difficult for a freshman. 

“I didn’t think any of those guys played great against Syracuse. Not that I thought they were bad, but they played as though they were young guys. I want to see the growth because as we move forward, as we advance, you want to see that so the next opportunity that they have next year to be able to play in some postseason, whether it becomes the ACC Tournament or NCAA, they’ve already had that under their belt. You can’t teach them what they’ve never been through. With these guys, it’s new to them.”

The Wolfpack didn’t get an easy draw in Davidson, a team that finished third in the Atlantic-10, a conference that sent two teams — St. Bonaventure and VCU — into the NCAA tournament.

The Wildcats feature an experienced lineup led by guards Kellan Grady, Hyunjung Lee and Carter Collins, who account for 58% of their team’s scoring and whose 142 combined 3-pointers are more than 95 entire Division I teams this season.

Unlike the Wolfpack, which comes into the NIT having won five of its last six games, coach Bob McKillop’s team is only 2-3 in its past five.

“It’s a great team, tremendously coached,” Keatts said. “Everyone I’ve spoken to has talked about how they think they’re one of the best, if not the best team in the Atlantic-10 this year. They’ve had pauses that certainly didn’t work in their favor, just as everyone else has. It’s a really tough team, it’s a tough opponent. But I’m excited about having the chance to play it.”