Keatts overhauls Wolfpack ahead of critical season

With several players transferring and a thin recruiting class, the NC State coach is looking to the transfer portal to save his job

NC State coach Kevin Keatts, pictured at the first round of the ACC Tournament in Brooklyn, is working this offseason to improve the Wolpack's roster and get off the hot seat. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

These aren’t the best of times for NC State men’s basketball fans.

As if suffering through the first 20-loss season in school history wasn’t bad enough, the frustration has been compounded by rivals North Carolina and Duke advancing to the Final Four, with the Tar Heels — written off as a disappointment under first-year coach Hubert Davis only a few weeks earlier — playing for a national championship.

The angst has only grown with four players entering the NCAA transfer portal and two more choosing to test the waters of the NBA Draft process, leading to a wave of social media GIFs featuring burning dumpsters and sinking ships.

Clearly, the situation for the Wolfpack is anything but optimal. But as teams such as Wake Forest and Iowa State proved last season, a quick turnaround is not out of the question under the current rules.

The Deacons posted a 19-game improvement, while the Cyclones went from two wins in 2020-21 to 22 on their way to the NCAA’s Sweet 16.

Coach Kevin Keatts will likely need a similar reversal of fortune to keep his job after only one NCAA Tournament appearance in his five seasons in Raleigh. It’s a process that starts with a roster overhaul that’s well underway.

Here’s a look at who’s going, who’s coming, who’s staying and who might return as Keatts and the Wolfpack prepare for a pivotal 2022-23 season.

Who’s going

Center Manny Bates, point guard Cam Hayes, shooting guard Thomas Allen and center Jaylon Gibson all entered the transfer portal. Hayes has already landed at LSU, while Gibson has committed to Division II Winston-Salem State.

At face value, the mass exodus has the appearance of a rush to the lifeboats before one of those sinking ships in the internet memes heads down to the bottom. It could just as easily turn out to be addition by subtraction.

Hayes failed to build on a promising freshman season in which he started 14 games, averaged 7.8 points per game and led the team in assists. His scoring and assist averages both dipped while his 3-point shooting percentage dropped from .364 to .250 as his confidence and the Keatts’ confidence in him waned.

Gibson showed he’s either not ready or not capable of playing at an ACC level, while Allen never lived up to the sharpshooting reputation he brought with him as a transfer from Nebraska.

Bates is by far the most significant loss because of his prowess as an elite shot blocker and his vastly improved offensive skillset. But his ability to contribute — let alone carry the team — was anything but guaranteed because of his injury history.

Keatts can’t afford to gamble on the availability of a player who’s missed two of the past four seasons because of shoulder problems. Even though Bates has the potential to be an All-American, replacing him with a more reliable veteran big is a safer bet for a coach whose seat is hotter than a steaming cup of coffee on an August afternoon.

Who’s coming

Keatts has already added two experienced players in 6-foot-8 wing Jack Clark from La Salle and 6-foot-2 guard Jarkel Joiner from Ole Miss.

Clark, who has two years of eligibility remaining, averaged 12.0 points and 5.8 rebounds last season while adding 49 assists and a team-leading 35 steals. Joiner, who started his career at Cal State Bakersfield and has one season of eligibility remaining, led the Rebels at 13.2 points per game with 35 3-pointers in 22 games.

The Wolfpack also has one incoming freshman in three-star point guard LJ Thomas.

That’s a good start, but Keatts has more work left to do — primarily the addition of the aforementioned veteran big. How many more newcomers he’ll need will depend on the draft decisions of Dereon Seabron and Terquavion Smith.

Who could be back

Seabron was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal year for State, earning the ACC’s Most Improved Player award while leading the team in scoring, rebounds, assists and steals. At 6-foot-8 with the ability to be a primary ballhandler, he has the size and athleticism NBA teams love. But he also has work to do on a still-developing perimeter game.

Smith, meanwhile, put on a long-range shooting show while setting a freshman school record with 96 3-point baskets. While his stock has continued to rise during offseason workouts, he could use another year of physical maturity to handle the rigors of an 82-game NBA schedule.

Both players have the option to return to school and have until 11:59 p.m. on June 1 to make their decisions.

Who is back

The remaining roster consists of guard Casey Morsell, who started 20 games and averaged 7.2 points in his first season after transferring from Virginia; big man Ebenezer Dowuona, who performed admirably and improved steadily in Bates’ absence; point guard Breon Pass, a former high school football star who could be primed for a breakthrough now that he’s concentrating solely on basketball; and forward Ernest Ross, who was just starting to come into his own when he suffered a season-ending foot injury in mid-January.

A potential X-factor could be 6-foot-8 forward Greg Gantt, a transfer from Providence who missed all last season because of a sports hernia.