At the plate now, Mr. Kevin Keatts, third-year head coach of UNC-Beach.
Important Questions, In Rough Order Of Importance:
1. Has he coached teams that have won a national title, made multiple deep NCAA tournament runs, and/or consistently been highly ranked?
No. UNC-Wilmington is Keatts’ first D-I head coaching job. He was the head coach at Hargrave Military Academy for a long time, and that program won titles; he was also an assistant at Louisville when the Cardinals won a national title.
Wilmington made the NCAAs last season but got bounced by Duke in the first round.
2. Has he built a program from the ground up?
This is where there’s more gray area with Keatts. He is only a third-year head coach, so it’s hard to say definitively, “yes, he has.” At the same time, the UNCW program he inherited was absolutely dreadful—the Seahawks finished 280th in the Pomeroy Ratings the year prior to Keatts’ arrival. Now? They are 56th. That’s obvious progress in a very short time, and that’s not easy to do at a place like UNCW.
3. Has he substantially improved the program from when he took over?
Yes, massively improved it, as I noted above. Wilmington won a grand total of 42 games in four years under Buzz Peterson, who was Keatts’ predecessor. It took Keatts two years to exceed that total. Wilmington had endured six consecutive losing seasons when Keatts was hired; Wilmington has not had a losing season since he took over.
Peterson won 20 league games in his four seasons. The Seahawks were 20-50 in CAA play during that span. Keatts’ Seahawks program is 37-13 in the CAA since he took over. And again, this is just his third year, and it ain’t over yet.
4. Has he succeeded at more than one head coaching job?
The main knock on Keatts is going to be about his experience—no doubt, it’s lacking. He’s barely into his first head coaching job in college. In general, head coaching experience is overrated, and Keatts’ quick progress at Wilmington is a positive indicator about what he could do at NC State.
If you want to count his head coaching experience at Hargrave here, though, then the answer to this question is a resounding yes.
5. Does he have significant high-major experience as either a head coach or an assistant?
Yes. Keatts was an assistant under Rick Pitino at Louisville from 2011-2014. That’s the extent of it, but that’s pretty solid pedigree.
6. Is his team one of the best in its conference right now?
The Seahawks lead the CAA by a game with an 11-3 conference record. Under Keatts, they have never finished below first place in league play.
7. Do his teams actually play, what is this thing called, "defense"?
Wellllll ... no. This is a problem, though his track record is so brief it is difficult to make any concrete conclusions. In his first year, Wilmington ranked 134th in defensive efficiency. Last year they were 111th, this year they are 178th. Best not to lose the forest for the trees, however: he has improved Wilmington’s program immensely in a short time, despite the defensive struggles.
That’s the other thing too: it can be instructive to consider a coach’s starting point. Not with everybody, and certainly not with guys who have left a fingerprint over an extended period of coaching. But Keatts inherited a program that finished 239th or worse in defensive efficiency in three of the four years prior to his arrival. He’s made them better at that end of the floor. They are not good, but they’ve improved.
8. So how about offense?
UNCW finished 229th in offensive efficiency his first year, then improved to 78th in his second, and the Seahawks are currently 19th this year. They shoot a lot of threes, but also make a bunch of twos and take care of the ball. They also rebound well despite being undersized.
9. Any indication that he can recruit McDonald’s All-American-type players?
At Louisville, Keatts had an outstanding reputation as a recruiter. He helped construct a team that won a national title. He is smart and methodical in his approach. (Seriously, read that.)
10. Does he have any connection to NC State, North Carolina, or the ACC?
He knows the ACC terrain well, from his time at Hargrave (which is in Virginia) to his assistant stint at Louisville, to his current gig at Wilmington. Safe to say he knows the region well and understands what challenges and opportunities it presents.
11. Any other random red flags or positives?
Keatts was a member of the Louisville staff during the sexcapades era, which has since brought significant NCAA sanctions against the school. Louisville self-imposed a postseason ban last year. This is not a mild scandal and it’s pretty gross, too. Keatts has never been implicated in any way, but as an assistant on that staff, it’s pretty difficult to imagine that he didn’t, y’know, know.
Would he be better than Gottfried?
Debatable, but I would imagine so. If I had to guess, Keatts would occupy some sort of middle ground: maybe not an elite recruiter, maybe not as good at creating good offenses (though the jury’s out on that one) but likely a better program builder with much higher upside.
Would he take the job if offered?
Yes. Aside from all the obvious stuff (budget, league, salary, etc.), Keatts has a thin team that will lose several rotation players after this season. This would be a good time for him to sell high.
How would I feel if he were hired?
Not super hyped, but reasonably happy. I like what Keatts potentially brings to the table, he’s just a bit of a wild card because of his limited track record. There are lots of good indicators, though, beginning with his experience under Pitino, and more importantly, ending with how much he’s improved UNC-Wilmington.
How would the fan base as a whole feel if he were hired?
Look, nobody is going to be thrilled about any name that isn’t Archie Miller. There’s a lot that profiles similarly here, though: Keatts is also a young up-and-coming head coach who has had marked success at a mid-major program. He’s not a difficult sell, is what I’m saying. The fan base would warm to him quickly and give him a fair shake; he wouldn’t be starting his tenure from behind the eight ball.