The plan all along was to post this story during the football bye week, but it now feels like a necessity in order to get your minds off what has been happening on the gridiron. Kevin Keatts kicks off Year 3 at the helm in less than two weeks with a season opener against ACC foe Georgia Tech. Two noteworthy years in a college basketball coaches tenure that get thrown around are Year 0, when a coach is given a pass for a horrific season due to having to start over, and Year 3 (technically Year 2 if you want to go by the previous logic) where you start to see a program turn a corner and take that next step. Unfortunately for Keatts, he skipped over what was thought to potentially be Year 0 by taking a rag tag group that didn’t fit how he wants to play and racking up five top-25 wins, finishing tied for 3rd in the ACC and making the NCAA tournament. Last year’s team then saw a regression in all of those areas, with the biggest obviously being missing the tournament. Winning is awesome and that first season was a lot of fun, but being that successful with that roster might’ve hurt Keatts a little in the sense that it unrealistically raised expectations.
Which brings us to Year 3. This is a theme across college basketball… but why? What’s the significance of this third year? When a new coach takes over for a struggling program, or one that may just be stuck in neutral, you always hear people talk about him “getting his guys in there”. While this phrase often gets beat into the ground, there is certainly truth behind it and correlation to improving the program. That is, of course, if you made the right hire. Because a bad coach will never win no matter what year it is. If you’ve got a coach who knows what he’s doing, he’ll quickly establish an identity for his program with a system/culture and then go out and bring in players who fit it. This is one of the main reasons why I believe Gottfried ultimately failed. I feel he never really established a program identity and the result was having to throw together rosters every spring and summer due to mass exodus of players. This is what brought in the Maverick Rowan’s, Shaun Kirk’s and Ted Kapita’s of the world. Players with some talent, sure, but random pieces that didn’t fit who would then transfer out of the program. Anybody have a clue what Ted Kapita is up to?
This is where Kevin Keatts has already accomplished more than Gottfried. The program has an identity. It’s a program built on accountability that plays hard every night and boasts a specific style. They want to run and pressure you with a deep stable of guards, long versatile wings and athletic big men. You’ve seen Keatts turn a roster that went about 8-deep with plodding big men and no length, to now a roster with athleticism and versatility that could legitimately play all 11 guys on any given night. With all that in mind, take a look at these coaches across college basketball who have built successful programs, and saw the third year as a catapult of sorts. All of them are either still at their respective schools or accepted a promotion elsewhere.
|22-10 (2nd rd)
|23-12 (2nd rd)
|22-12 (2nd rd)
|25-9 (2nd rd)
|22-11 (1st rd)
|22-9 (Sweet 16)
|28-9 (Sweet 16)
This list was cut short due to time constraints, but there are plenty of other examples as well. Not a bad list though huh? Similar to Keatts, all of these coaches took over for a team that had a losing record the prior year (except Wichita who went 17-14). All eight of these coaches saw their highest win totals in the third year, because they had time to re-stock the talent pool and develop those players they brought in for their system. Virginia gave up right around 63 ppg in Bennett’s first two seasons, but in year 3 only yielded 54.2 ppg. Since then they’ve only given up more than 56 ppg in a season once while being one of the most dominant teams in college basketball. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, Bruce Pearl wants to run up and down the floor jacking up a ton of threes (they attempted 1,204 last year, most in the nation). The team he inherited simply wasn’t built to do that, but in year 3 they went from barely scraping 70 ppg to averaging over 80. Not to mention that roster was filled with a young core that ended up going to a Final Four last year.
With Purdue and Virginia Tech, you’re talking about two programs that simply didn’t have talent on campus. By year 3? Matt Painter was rolling out E’Twuan Moore, Robbie Hummel and JaJuan Johnson. Buzz Williams had brought in guys like Justin Robinson, Zach LeDay, Ahmed Hill and others. Yes, I know, common sense and simple math says that there won’t be many holdovers by the time you get to this point. But it’s still worth mentioning because isn’t the reason the new coach got hired is because the old one wasn’t getting it done with the players he was bringing in? And the few that do stay can develop into stars under the right coaches. Mike Scott (Virginia), Bryce Cotton (Providence) and EJ Singler (Oregon) all stuck around and were their teams leading scorers in Year 3. Similarly, NC State has one holdover remaining, a guy named Markell Johnson, who has already developed into a star player.
Making a jump and taking that “next step” is all relative of course. While Auburn going 18-14 isn’t eye popping, it marked the first winning season in nine years while setting the foundation for the best two-year run in school history. Wichita State, the only other team listed not to make the tournament, started seeing signs of a dominant mid-major who would eventually go dancing seven straight years, which is one less than previous school history combined. So relatively speaking, what would be State’s next step they take in year 3 under Keatts?
Where NC State is different from most of the teams in the above list is that the first two seasons were actually fairly successful. Both had identical regular season records at 21-10, with last years final win total getting beefed up a little by the NIT. For me, an NC State program that’s moving forward will win a couple more games in the regular season and maybe not flirt with the bubble as much for once. Win a few games against top teams like they did two years ago and that win total goes up to 23 or 24. You’d like to see them also have a winning record in ACC play again and finish back up in the top 5-6. All of those are completely realistic expectations with an experienced team in a conference that will likely take a step back this year as far as overall strength. The ACC is still a beast though don’t get me wrong.
But it’s not even just about the wins and losses. As I alluded to with those Virginia and Auburn teams, they not only turned a corner talent wise, but systematically. You’re going to see for the first time a roster that most closely resembles a true Kevin Keatts team. Just look at the one-for one replacements. Out is Torin Dorn, Wyatt Walker, and Eric Lockett… in is Pat Andree, Manny Bates and Dereon Seabron. I loved Dorn, he was a good player who had some awesome moments in a Wolfpack uniform. But being a non-shooting threat in a spread you out 4-guard lineup really caused problems on offense at times, especially against zone. At 6’8” Andree is a career 42% high volume three point shooter, who Keatts called one of the best long ball shooters he’s seen. He’ll open more lanes for Markell and take some of the shooting load off Beverly. Manny Bates should be a huge upgrade on the defensive end of the floor compared to Walker, and if he can just finish a few around the basket that’s all you need from him. Eric Lockett did some really nice things, but I think Seabron has a much higher ceiling and the 6’6” freshman should see some more minutes with his experience at point guard in HS and Blake Harris’ departure. By my calculations, those pieces fit.
Not to mention State returns six guys who played big minutes last year. We know what we’re gonna get from Markell Johnson, Braxton Beverly and CJ Bryce. And I think we’ll see a better shooting Braxton Beverly this season, inching closer to 40% like his freshman year. The big x-factor for the amount of success this team sees is the development of DJ Funderburk, Devon Daniels and Jericole Hellems. All of them are very versatile players that showed flashes last year and more consistent play from each will be huge. I know I said that it’s not just about wins and losses in seeing a program progress, which was a really dumb thing to say, but if this roster performs the way Keatts carefully constructed it to then the wins will come much more frequently than the losses and Year 3 will be that next step forward. Maybe one day Coach Keatts will find his way in to that chart. If the results stay neutral and don’t progress forward this year, please don’t freak out. I know no one will freak out. Right?
FYI - Jim Valvano won a National Championship in Year 3. It’s a thing.