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In Defense of Keatts’ Defense

Let’s put a more June-like spin on this.

NCAA Basketball Tournament - UNC Wilmington v Virginia Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

PackMentality has been the voice of reason regarding the defensive record of Kevin Keatts. Without a doubt, UNC-Wilmington’s defense, or lack thereof, in his short tenure as a head coach is concerning, especially for plugged-in NC State fans who realize that Mark Gottfried’s immense shortcomings as a defensive coach undid his career here and placed a low ceiling on the program’s potential. Keatts has had elite offenses—fourth in the NCAA in points per possession in 2016-17—but is he ultimately going to bring more of the same “They’ve got to guard us too, pal” results to Raleigh?

The answer is simple: we don’t know. But, there are some ways to bend the statistics to soak in a more encouraging light. PM correctly noted that Keatts’ last year at Wilmington was worse than Buzz Peterson’s last year in terms of the KenPom AdjD ranking. True that. Peterson’s last team ranked 179th; Keatts was 192nd. That’s a pretty narrow lens, however. If we zoom out, we see that Keatts averaged a ranking of 146th in his three seasons. Peterson averaged 242nd in his four. Benny Moss posted an identical 242nd average ranking in his four seasons. Wilmington was a brutal wasteland of defensive suck for eight seasons before Keatts came in, and NC State’s new coach essentially improved the club by nearly 100 spots compared to his predecessors if we look at all of the seasons.

The 111th ranking Keatts’ crew posted in 2016 is the best mark the Seahawks have posted since 2006. The 134th ranking from 2015 is the second best. Being ranked outside the top 100 is not exactly something to brag about, even at a small school from a one-bid conference that will have a tough time getting ranked much higher due to KenPom’s factoring in of schedule strength. However, it’s short-sighted and a bit numbers is bullshitty to just focus on Keatts’ worst season rather than looking at how his entire body of work compares to the school’s previous footprint of futility.

Speaking of strength of schedule adjustments: there are 349 NCAA D-1 programs, but only 21% of those come from power five + the Big East conferences. However, 90% of KenPom’s top 10 defensive teams come from the P5+BE. In the top 25, 76% are from the P%+BE. For a team like Wilmington, I think the results are somewhat skewed because you so rarely have the opportunity to play top competition at all, and you almost never get to do so at home. Do I know how Kenneth Pomeroy applies strength of schedule adjustments to his rankings? Nope. But at the end of the day, trying to rank Louisville and North Carolina A&T and everything in between in the same system is an exercise in comparing apples and oranges.

Wilmington played two NCAA tournament teams—just two—before the tournament: ETSU and MTSU. Against his toughest regular season competition, Keatts’ ‘hawks held the Buccaneers to 0.86 points per possession. The Bucs averaged 1.07 on the season. Against the Blue Raiders, Keatts’ crew gave up one point per possession. MTSU averaged 1.1 for the season. The game against ETSU was Wilmington’s singular home game against an NCAA tournament team. ONE. That’s all. Apples. Oranges. The MTSU game was at a neutral site. Anecdotal evidence? Sure. But the team performed quite well in its limited opportunities against NCAA tournament caliber competition.

Wilmington and NC State have one directly comparable scheduling event: both teams played at Clemson (a team that averaged 1.07 points per possession). Gottfried’s club gave up 1.17 points per possession. Keatts’ club gave up 1.17 points per possession. Sad. But which team had more size and talent? If Keatts can achieve the same result with considerably less talent, it’s probably safe to assume he can get more out of ACC-level talent than Gottfried.

Speaking of size, Wilmington played four guards and a power forward this year. Devontae Cacock was the only player on the team 6-7 or taller to play more than 10 minutes per game. Seven guys averaged 10+ minutes, and six of them were guards. One might fairly question Wilmington’s style of trying to run guys off the three-point line and pressuring for turnovers given their roster limitations, but I think a defensive style patterned in the Louisville mold will be more successful once Keatts has ACC-level talent. Ultimately, this is a question more about whether he can recruit Louisville-like talent than whether or not be can coach defense. Speaking of Louisville, they had nine guys average 10+ minutes, and five of those were 6-7 or taller. Keatts’ defense needs size and rim protectors to maximize its potential, and he should be able to acquire that at NC State.

Two more encouraging signs: Wilmington’s opponents were 317th in assist percentage and 342nd in three-point rate. The lack of assisted baskets suggests that his strategy was disruptive. The lack of 3’s indicates that Keatts hopes to force teams to beat him with a midrange game. He just didn’t have the personnel to keep them at midrange rather than getting to the basket, and his short squad struggled to contend with them when they did. Opponents shot 38.9% of their shots at the rim compared to an NCAA average of 34.9%. More concerning, opponents made 68.9% of their shots at the rim compared to an NCAA average of 59.6%. Some of that might be bad luck, but a lot of it comes back to lack of rim protection. The Seahawks blocked just 6.6% of shots at the rim compared to an NCAA average of 10.6%.

It is fair to suggest that Keatts erred strategically by adopting the style he did despite his personnel, but at least we see a strategy. We also see that, overall, his defense was much improved over his predecessors and that last year he might’ve been a little unlucky. What will ultimately separate Keatts from Gottfried, who lacked a discernible defensive footprint or was completely unsuccessful at getting players to buy in if he had one, is that Keatts does have a strategy that has promise. If his recruiting exploits are successful, his defense will be too.

In his three years at Louisville under Rick Pitino, the Cardinals twice finished first in KenPom’s AdjD rankings; in the other season, they were fifth. I’m sure Keatts was paying attention, and, with the right talent and buy in, will vastly improve the defensive product the Pack has put on the floor compared to the last two hires when State had to settle for something less than the man it wanted for the job. Oh, and Louisville recruiting is not some pie-in-the-sky something that NC State could never hope for. Pitino’s last five classes had an average rank of 35.8th by 247sports; Gottfried’s last five classes averaged 20.8th.

Let’s see what Keatts can do with that kind of talent before we pass judgment on his defensive chops. Don’t ignore the negative indicators, but there are plenty of encouraging signs. Most encouraging of all is that W-L percentage of .720, the 11th best among active coaches. And he did it at a place that had six consecutive losing seasons before he came aboard.