If you had entered this season carrying the belief that the 2018-19 NC State basketball team would be better than its predecessor, you would have been regarded as an overindulgent optimist. Kevin Keatts glued and rubber-banded a team together in 2017 and overcame some stark odds to lead them to the NCAA Tournament. It was a magnificent coaching job. This year he was tasked with something more difficult; doing it again.
Part 1: What are we?
Keatts brought back only three players that took part in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, once again filling his roster with new faces. A four-man recruiting class hoped to turn 2018-19 into a groundwork year for an ideal Keatts roster. Markell Johnson was ready to be the best player on the team and there was hofpe that one of Devon Daniels or C.J. Bryce could fill a go-to scorer role similar to where Al Freeman excelled.
Outside of that, State was a serious unknown. Keatts had a surplus of bodies to put on the court, but all we really knew is that they probably weren’t going winless and they probably weren’t going to win the national championship.
Part 2: We’re going to win the national championship
Impossibly, it looked like Keatts still had some magic dust left over from last year. Despite losing half of its front line by the second game, State just forged on to a 11-1 record. The Auburn win was peak Kevin Keatts basketball. State was active all game, forcing 20+ turnovers, scoring in transition, and hitting threes. Auburn also played like crap, but nobody cared at the time. It was a top 10 win, the fourth for the second-year head coach.
Its only loss a four-point defeat at #15 Wisconsin, a game it would have won sans Brad Davison’s hysterics, State was looking like a contender going into January. It had been recognized with its highest ranking entering conference play since probably before the person writing this was born. It was going to be favored over a top 15 North Carolina team, which felt like something from another dimension. A breakthrough was there for the taking, or at least it seemed.
Part 3: Oh
The Pack had done well to mask its imperfections through the first twelve games. Unfortunately, the cracks ran deeper than the early season run made apparent. State was flawed, and as the season grew older those flaws began to bubble to the top of the pot.
The Miami game was something of a warning. State was torched by a speedy guard in Chris Lykes and it was incapable of sustaining offense as it fell behind by double digits in the second half. The Pack eventually wore down the thin Canes and Markell Johnson bombing from deep carried them across the finish line. It was an awesome win, because it was one no team since Valvano’s would have found a way to secure. It was also an inkling of some vulnerabilities that would be uncovered over the coming games.
State gave up countless critical offensive rebounds to UNC and again was highly inconsistent on offense as it dropped its first conference game of the year. It was then stymied by Pittsburgh and Wake Forest’s zone defense, especially without the versatility of Markell Johnson. What became apparent over the course of the first half of conference play was that NC State’s team was actually pretty average. If it could force turnovers and speed the game up, it could be good, but State didn’t have the horses to matchup with better teams in the halfcourt.
State’s roster lacked versatility and it lacked the ability to create mismatches. It isn’t that the players weren’t good, it’s that its primary contributors were too easy to guard. Most everyone was good at one thing. Braxton Beverly is a shooter. C.J. Bryce is the same. Devon Daniels plays good defense, but wasn’t a consistent offensive threat. Torin Dorn had multiple facets to his game with his mid-range jumper, but if you took away his driving lanes, his inability to hit from the outside made him a lot less threatening. All of this, of course, excludes Markell Johnson, who had everything except somebody to consistently take the pressure off of him.
The halfcourt offense was at its best when Markell Johnson and Torin Dorn were able to penetrate defenses. If State lost that, things began to slow down because the offense lost its lone mismatch creators. You can have the greatest offensive genius in basketball history on your sideline. If he doesn’t have something to exploit and force defenders to make decisions with, things become much tougher.
This is why State saw so much zone from the lesser teams on its schedule, and part of why it stifled the Pack as much as it did at times. (The team also wasn’t well prepared to deal with it early on, but adjustments were made). When the Pack lost its main offensive catalyst, it didn’t have an obvious secondary approach to turn to. When it was taken away by a zone, the Pack was fine trying to shoot its way out too often. Sometimes it worked (see: Pitt). Sometimes it didn’t (see: Wake). State didn’t have enough consistent shooters to be able to lean on its perimeter shooting though, so if you’re an inferior team, that was a risk worth taking.
Last year’s team, if it wanted to, could put five players on the floor that shot better than 38% from three. It had a seven-foot center that was money from mid-range out. It had two knockdown shooters on the perimeter that could also get inside and finish at the rim. That’s a roster that was well-equipped to score versus any defense. This year’s team had just one player that shot better than 38% from three with any significant number of attempts.
Simply, this year’s offense didn’t have enough reliable options to be able to go to something else when its first thing wasn’t working. Omer Yurtseven carried the Pack through stretches without Markell Johnson last season. His game was easily adaptable to almost any defense because he could score from anywhere. He’s the kind of player that State didn’t have this year.
Now D.J. Funderburk and Jericole Hellems are going to do a lot in the future to curtail this issue. Both are lengthy athletic players with budding jumpshots. The game is just way too fast right now for Hellems, which is normal for a freshman. Funderburk is farther along but needs some polishing and consistency in his jumper as well. When those two games flesh out, things are going to blow wide open for Kevin Keatts.
This year though, they joined Wyatt Walker on a front line that struggled in some key areas. As ACC play dragged on and the Pack came up a hair shy in a handful of games against future top 4 seeds, defensive rebounding became a bit of an ugly theme down the stretch. The Pack was realistically just one or two defensive rebounds away from wins over UNC, Virginia, and Florida State.
At the critical moments in those games though, the bigger and stronger post players came down with the ball. The Pack was lucky this didn’t cost them the Clemson game too. State was supposed to have four guys (five if you wanted to count Hellems) that they could swap out down low, including one massive 270 pounder who was capable of being that banger type. Instead, he left after one game and Manny Bates got hurt for the season.
That’s mostly just crap luck, and it hit again when Sacha Killeya-Jones called it a college career midway through the season. NC State was not equipped to deal with bigger and more seasoned post players and it ended up costing them in big games.
Despite its many deficiencies, the team was still able to play Kevin Keatts basketball. They were still able to force turnovers, speed the pace up, and go on patented big runs. Once the other team called a timeout though and slowed the game back to halfcourt pace, the Pack struggled to execute and score, leaving them with minimal opportunity to set up the press. That’s part of the reason why so many games featured runs to come back and get close, only to have the deficit space out again minutes later. The press can snowball on the other team if it works, but if you struggle to score without it, it can snowball the other direction just as easily.
The Pack played its best ball at the beginning of the season, but ultimately it ran into some brick walls that it wasn’t going to be able to climb. I do think that this team being able to win double-digit conference games is still an impressive coaching job by Keatts given the deficiencies it was dealing with, even if it did nearly win about five more. The Pack did pretty well to overcome its shortcomings, but it consistently two rebounds, or two stops, or two good halfcourt possessions short against the tougher teams on the schedule, which ultimately kept it out of the tournament.
A lot of the issues that kept this group from breaking through need to be addressed on the recruiting trail. Adding some athleticism to the perimeter will help the halfcourt offense, which will in turn help the defense set up the press more often. It should also boost the effectiveness of the halfcourt defense, whose inability to stay in front of penetration resulted in easy assists, offensive rebounds, or fouls from the constant need to help.
This is coming too, assuming Jalen Lecque is. He and Seabron are Keatts style guards, and if State continues to pull in their type as well as Funderburk and Hellems type players, we should really start to see this system pay dividends.
What you should take away from this season is that Kevin Keatts is a good basketball coach that can win at NC State, but nobody is a miracle worker. His first year was a fun ride, but the build really began this year. The roster is still pretty far from where the head coach wants it, and the team’s future still needs a lot of development. While this season’s results were a step back from last year’s, it was also a step toward the full implementation of the system that Kevin Keatts wants to run. A small step, but one nonetheless.