Kevin Keatts, NC State trending up

After picking up wins against two ranked opponents, the Wolfpack are putting together a bounce-back season

NC State DJ Burns has become a fan favorite since taking on a bigger role with the Wolfpack. (Matt Gentry / The Roanoke Times via AP)

RALEIGH — After a 1-3 start in conference play that saw the team teetering on the edge of yet another failed season, the NC State men’s basketball team has managed to string together key wins to thrust itself back into the NCAA Tournament conversation.

And it’s not just the season that the Wolfpack have managed to save — it’s also cooled coach Kevin Keatts’ hot seat.

The sixth-year coach has taken NC State to the NCAA Tournament only once, in his first season in 2017-18, and after a string of mediocre seasons culminated with the worst record in the ACC last year, Keatts’ future with the Wolfpack was in doubt.

But this year, Keatts has seemingly found a winning formula for the Wolfpack.

“We’re growing,” Keatts said following NC State’s blowout upset of Duke on Jan. 4. “We’ve got an elite guard that came back and I’ve added some new pieces. And I know because they’re transfers everybody thinks that we should jell right away, but we’re still growing. We’re gonna continue to get better.”

NC State’s success can be attributed to a few factors, but almost all of them can be traced back to Keatts’ success in the transfer portal.

Keatts went to the portal looking to fill some needs and find experienced players to supplement his young core. The trio of graduate players he added — Jack Clark, Jarkel Joiner and DJ Burns — have each been big additions to the program.

“We felt like we had young bigs and we wanted to get some experienced bigs,” Keatts said before the season. “I also needed an experienced, older point guard to help win in this league and be someone who would be positive in the locker room and be an extension off the floor. And then we wanted a kind of hybrid four who could play the three or the four.”

Joiner has proven to be the perfect fit at point guard to complement leading scorer Terquavion Smith, giving the Wolfpack one of the best backcourts in the ACC.

The pair has combined to average 34.7 points per game heading into Tuesday’s game at Georgia Tech while also fitting into Keatts’ high-pressure defense.

The biggest impact, however, is probably the surprising emergence of Burns.

The 6-foot-9, 275-pound Burns wasn’t expected to start for the Wolfpack, with senior Dusan Mahorcic being the projected big-minute center. But after the Serbian forward suffered a season-ending injury, Burns was elevated into a bigger role.

The Winthrop transfer has taken the opportunity and run with it, averaging 9.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and nearly one block per game. He matched his season high with 18 points in the win over Duke.

Burns has added a physical element to the Wolfpack lineup, someone who can battle in the paint and get rebounds while contributing at the offensive end.

On top of his back-to-the-basket skills, Burns has shown to have a soft touch both in close and from mid-range, all leading to him quickly becoming a fan favorite at PNC Arena.

The Wolfpack have also used Keatts’ aggressive defensive system to create turnovers and score in transition. The Wolfpack are averaging 19.8 points per game off turnovers, outscoring opponents by 128 points this season off of turnovers.

“I think our team has taken on the identity of defense and grit,” Keatts said after his team’s second win over a ranked opponent, Saturday’s 83-81 home win over then-No. 16 Miami. “We’re making big plays and big stops when we need to. What’s special about this team is that every game where we get a win, I’m able to point at someone who made a difference in the game.”

Clark had been a big part of that defensive game, leading the team in rebounds and steals per game, but he has been out of action since suffering a core muscle injury Dec. 30 against Clemson.

But as Keatts mentioned, others have been stepping up in Clark’s absence too. Ernest Ross, for example, had a career game against Miami to lead the Wolfpack to victory.

“This team keeps putting together good games and it’s always someone else who’s stepping up,” Keatts said after the win over the Hurricanes. “When we put the team together for the first time, we thought we had 10 guys that could play.”

If the Wolfpack can continue to get contributions from up and down their lineup while suffocating opponents with their defense, Keatts should not only be able to keep his job — he might be able to get his team back to the tournament for the second time since he arrived in Raleigh.