When Herb Sendek headed west to the Arizona desert, NC State had an opportunity to hire a young coach who had built a Winthrop program into a top 25 team. Under the ever questionable leadership of Lee Fowler, the Pack passed on Gregg Marshall, who later went on to build a perennial top 25 team at Wichita State and has perhaps now priced himself out of the picture for the Pack in their current coaching search.
Will NC State again regret it if it doesn’t take a serious look at Winthrop’s head man? Pat Kelsey has not taken the Eagles to quite the heights seen under Marshall’s leadership, but, unlike Marshall, Kelsey has significant high-major experience as an assistant, including a stint in the ACC with Wake Forest.
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?
Kelsey’s Eagles will take on the upstart Campbell Camels, which ousted POAPS candidate Nick McDevitt’s UNCA squad, today at 1 p.m. in the Big South championship. Winthrop has won the league’s regular season title two years running but will need to win the tournament to get their first trip to the NCAAs since 2009-10. So, no, not yet, and not likely at Winthrop. The Eagles, even under Marshall, won a grand total of one NCAA tournament game.
2. Has he built a program from the ground up?
Marshall put Winthrop on the map, but things fell apart under his successor, Randy Peele. Peele managed to make the tournament twice but finished with a losing record in three of his last four seasons before Kelsey took over. So, in short, Kelsey took a team that had a brief run of success half a decade before and brought them back to the top of the league. That job was perhaps made easier by the tradition Marshall had started, however.
3. Has he substantially improved the program from when he took over?
Winthrop went from 20-game loser to 20-game winner in just two seasons under Kelsey, though it was just a move from 261st to 229th in KenPom’s rankings. The team has kept climbing steadily, however, in his five-year stint and are 118th now. That’s really good for a Big South club (though Marshall’s last squad was 51st). He’s improved the team but not reached the Marshall level of success.
4. Has he succeeded at more than one head coaching job?
Winthrop is his first head coaching job.
5. Does he have significant high-major experience as either a head coach or an assistant?
If winning at Winthrop doesn’t do it for you, this is where Kelsey’s candidacy takes off. He was an assistant to Skip Prosser and Dino Gaudio at Wake Forest during an era when the Deacons were twice ranked number one in the nation, reached a regional semifinal, and won an ACC regular season championship (which, I know, is not the REAL ACC championship, but it’s not insignificant).
Kelsey also worked under Chris Mack as associate head coach at Xavier for a couple of seasons. The Musketeers finished both years in the top 25 and made a sweet 16.
Kelsey may not have taken Winthrop to quite Marshall heights, but over a decade ago when Marshall was passed over, the latter didn’t have any experience as an assistant at the high-major level. Kelsey has an impressive résumé in that regard.
6. Is his team one of the best in its conference right now?
Winthrop has won the Big South regular season twice in a row, with 13-5 and 15-3 marks over the last two seasons, and is a win from punching its ticket to the Dance, so yes. UNC-Asheville has a slight edge this year in KenPom’s rankings, coming in at 104th. McDevitt’s Bulldogs also have a miniscule edge in RPI, 74th to 77th.
7. Do his teams actually play, what is this thing called, "defense"?
Kelsey’s Winthrop squad has been first or second in AdjD in the Big South in three of the last four seasons. The Xavier teams he was an assistant for were 44th and 57th. The Wake years were a bit more fun and gun.
8. So how about offense?
Did I mention fun and gun? The Eagles are right on the cusp of averaging over 80 points per game for the second straight season and were the 13th highest scoring team in the NCAA last season. They play fast and love the three. They’ve had the second best offense in the Big South over each of the last two years according to KenPom, but, given the competition, that hasn’t been good enough to quite crack the top 100 nationally.
9. Any indication that he can recruit McDonald’s All-American-type players?
Kelsey played a big part in landing a lot of talent at Wake, including Burger Boy Al-Farouq Aminu. He recruited and/or coached NBA players Chris Paul, Josh Howard, Darius Songaila, James Johnson, Jeff Teague, Aminu, and Ishmael Smith. He has a roster full of two-star guys at Winthrop because it’s Winthrop, but I don’t doubt that he would be able to snag talent like he helped bring to Winston-Salem if he landed in Raleigh. His preference of a running style of play can’t hurt in this regard.
10. Does he have any connection to NC State, North Carolina, or the ACC?
The Wake Forest connection, of course.
11. Any other random red flags or positives?
On a positive note, he graduated cum laude from Xavier. I like smart guys and even hope to have a coach that genuinely cares about how his student-athletes perform in the classroom.
But all these Xavier connections could be troubling. His dad played there. He played there. He was born in Cincinnati. Chris Mack’s team is in a free fall and may well miss the NCAA tournament, though it would be just the second time in eight years so his job is not in jeopardy. Still, Mack is often connected with other jobs. What if he jumps ship now? Would Kelsey want the Xavier job instead, or will be bide his time until it’s available?
Kelsey was so moved after the Newtown shootings that he used a post-game press conference to go on an emotional rant about how the nation’s leaders need to step up to do something to curb the disturbing trend, though he stopped short of making it political by advocating for gun control or some such measures. A father of three, he seemed genuinely and deeply saddened by the tragedy and couldn’t wait to get home to hug his littles.
He was also very close to Prosser, so much so that he took a leave from coaching after his mentor and former coach’s untimely death to more or less get himself together. An emotional and intense—by all accounts he is extremely competitive—man who is dedicated to his children and others he holds dear? I’m cool with that, I think, but will the pressure of the ACC be a bit too much for him?
For those of you worrying about age, Kelsey will be just 42 when next season tips off.
Would he be better than Gottfried?
I don’t think Kelsey has a long enough track record as a head coach or enough experience as a head coach at a high level—actually he has none—to say for sure, but he strikes me as a better X’s and O’s coach who would instill some discipline in the program, so most likely.
OK, so what is his ceiling?
Really, for just about all of the candidates, I see it taking a couple of recruiting cycles to get State to be a program that is solidly in the tournament every year. From there, it might take some of the old guard (K, Roy, Pitino) to go to pasture before he could become an ACC elite and title contender. I think Marshall might be the only guy out there who is a reasonable possibility that could make the team an instant first division ACC club, but Kelsey is a no worse bet than anyone else to establish something long-term.
Would he take the job if offered?
I don’t think it’s any secret that he views Winthrop as a stepping stone. He’s been contacted and listened to overtures already. State would, at minimum, quadruple his salary. I’d be surprised if he turned it down if offered, unless, as noted above, there is a set of dominoes that might lead him back to Xavier.
How would I feel if he were hired?
He’s not my first choice, but I would be pretty open to it given his ACC experience, fun offense, and apparent dedication to coaching offense AND defense.
How would the fan base as a whole feel if he were hired?
In a vacuum, I don’t think this would go over well, but given the Winthrop history with Marshall, I think most plugged in fans would tell themselves that they got Marshall 2.0 (at a huge discount) and be pretty ecstatic about Dr. Yow’s shrewd move.