College Basketball Preview: NC State has nowhere to go but up

The Wolfpack men’s basketball team is hoping to rebound with a new look

Kevin Keatts enters his sixth season at NC State with a revamped roster after the Wolfpack lost a school-record 21 games in 2021-22. (Jason DeCrow / AP Photo)

RALEIGH — After finishing as the worst team in the ACC last season at 4-16 with an 11-21 overall record, the NC State men’s basketball will have a new look for the 2022-23 season, headed up by returning sophomore guard Terquavion Smith and graduate transfer guard Jarkel Joiner.

Wolfpack coach Kevin Keatts nearly didn’t get Smith back after he declared for the NBA Draft following his freshman season, but the 6-foot-4 Greenville native ultimately decided to return to Raleigh.

“It was good,” Smith said of the feedback he received by initially entering the draft. “I enjoyed that process a lot, but I feel good to be back with my team and my family. … It’s great vibes.”

Smith’s return gave the Wolfpack its second-leading scorer from last season — he averaged 16.3 points per game and set a school record for most 3-pointers by a true freshman with 96.

Keatts also got an addition from the transfer portal adding a true point guard in Joiner to run the offense. The Ole Miss transfer averaged 13.2 points and 2.3 assists per game last season and has already brought some vocal leadership to the room, according to Keatts.

“I love to talk, I love to communicate,” Joiner said at the ACC Media Tipoff. “This team is amazing to be around. I’m very vocal. I like talking and being communicative, and learning my teammates from Day 1 was the goal.”

The Wolfpack also have junior center Ebenezer Dowuona, who started 27 games last season and averaged 4.1 total rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game, and senior guard Casey Morsell, who started 20 games and averaged 7.2 points per game, returning.

Sophomore guards Breon Pass, Chase Graham and Alex Nunnally, as well as sophomore forward Ernest Ross and redshirt junior forward Greg Gantt — who each missed the majority of last season due to injuries — also figure to work into the rotation.

“Ernest and Greg are doing well,” Keatts said of his two recovered players. “I think you guys will like what they bring to the table. Both of those guys are doing a great job competing, and both of them are healthy right now.”

Overall, however, it will be mostly a new group for the Wolfpack, who lose Dereon Seabron, Jericole Hellems, Cam Hayes, Manny Bates, Thomas Allen and Jaylon Gibson from last year’s team.

Keatts is hoping the addition of four graduate transfers will help the program turn the page and bring more veteran leadership to the group. Jack Clark comes from La Salle and will complement Joiner as a newcomer in the backcourt. Dusan Mahorcic (Utah) and DJ Burns (Winthrop) add size in the paint for NC State.

“When you look at college basketball last year, the teams that were really good were the teams that had guys that were experienced,” Keatts said. “When you’re starting freshman and sophomores and don’t have other pieces around them, at least three, sometimes four, it’s always hard to win.”

The addition of experienced centers will help a Wolfpack squad that struggled in the frontcourt after Bates went down in the first game of last season.

“We went out and we addressed a lot of our needs,” Keatts said of the additions through the transfer portal. “We struggled because we had young post guys, so we went out and got two centers that were post guys and that were really good players.

“[Burns] is a talented scorer. He’s unique, he’s different. He’s a lefty, post guy. Can really score the basketball. I think one of the most underrated things about DJ is his ability to pass the ball. He may be our second- or third-leading assist guy on our team.”

Keatts is entering his sixth season and will be joined by three new assistants on his staff: former Wolfpack player Levi Watkins, Kareem Richardson and Joel Justus.

The expectations for the Wolfpack are low this season — the ACC media picked NC State to finish 10th in the conference —after a brutal 2021-22 season last year, so it can only go up from there.

“I want to get back to Year 1, 2, and 3,” Keatts said about his expectations for this season. “I do. We were having fun. No one likes to lose. This program has been built, since I got here, on hard work, dedication and we have fought through a lot of different things.

“From the day I got here to sitting here now, we’ve dealt with the NCAA, we’ve dealt with injuries, and hopefully we can get past both of them and get back to having fun. We were on the right track, and we want to make last year a one-off.”