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Kevin Keatts, growing pains, and why you should still have patience

Kevin Keatts had to reset his backcourt in 2020-21, and it’s proven to be a challenge

NCAA Basketball: N.C. State at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

One pretty pervasive take about this N.C. State basketball team was that it should have been head coach Kevin Keatts’ best team.

The combination of returning players and a strong recruiting class got everyone pretty excited about what Year 4 had to offer, but that combo also seems to have packaged up the very real concerns about this team and shipped them off into the ether—the result of which was a pretty unfair expectation for the Wolfpack. As always, the devil is in the details.

From its backcourt last season, N.C. State lost its leading scorer in shooting guard C.J. Bryce and its starting point guard in Markell Johnson—who was second on the team in scoring and led the entire ACC in assists. To pretend that that’s anything other than a significant blow would ultimately just be exercise for your imagination.

Johnson was without question the most important player on Keatts’ last two teams, and the unfortunate truth of this season is that N.C. State did not have the horses to replace the production he and his departed teammates provided. State brought back an elite scorer in the backcourt in Devon Daniels, but complimenting him were two undersized guards who best served as off-ball shooters and three freshmen that, while obviously talented, had combined to play zero total minutes of college basketball. Most importantly, there was no proven option at point guard.

So, it makes sense that State would hit some pretty severe growing pains this year, especially after Daniels suffered a torn ACL in late January.

In an ideal world, Cam Hayes would immediately flourish at point guard, put up 14 points and 6 assists every night, and everything would be peachy. But the Pack got much closer to the worst case scenario here. Very few of State’s six freshmen were ready to contribute much of anything, and it resulted in a lack of the dynamic guard play that State had built its team around the last three years. Keatts essentially had to choose between jamming a square peg into a round hole with Braxton Beverly at point guard, or playing the young guys that clearly needed to be developed.

Neither of those is a winning strategy in the short term, and it’s shown—that’s the reality of this.

Despite increasing contributions from Daniels, Jericole Hellems, and Manny Bates, State has struggled to compensate for its significant backcourt woes, and it’s not exactly a plot twist. This is the kind of thing that can happen when half of your roster is freshmen.

Does this mean that Keatts is shielded from all criticism this year? Well of course not. This is not a discussion of absolutes. The blame for NC State’s 6-8 record does not have to fall exclusively on one thing. But we do have to acknowledge that some of State’s struggles couldn’t simply be coached around. It was always a possibility that State would face this situation replacing the dynamic Johnson and his backcourt counterpart.

There isn’t a magic button you can push to make a guy ready for the ACC—that can take time if he isn’t already there. There also isn’t a magic button you can push to turn Braxton Beverly into Magic Johnson. State needed more from its young guys than they were ready to deliver, and as a result, it had to ask more of its older guys than they were capable of delivering. It’s not that shocking that it ended up with some critical deficiencies.

It’s also not exactly a coincidence that State’s best games have been the contests where it got the best play from its young guards.

Shakeel Moore was the difference in the UNC and Boston College wins to open ACC play. State got 15 combined assists from Hayes and Moore in the one-point win at Pittsburgh. All three of Hayes, Moore, and Dereon Seabron delivered a lot of good minutes at Wake Forest, and it was the best game the team played all year.

These young guys have the talent to form a menacing backcourt. They’re good athletes that can attack the basket and create mismatches on offense and be disruptive on defense. It’s easy to see why fans were excited about this crop of freshmen, and why it makes such a difference when they play well. But, as most freshmen do, they still need time.

If you were excited about this recruiting class, you should afford it the opportunity to grow into its potential, and you certainly shouldn’t close the book on the coaching staff before that has a chance to happen. Because while it might be the staff’s fault the roster got stuck in this situation, the pieces for the immediate future are more in place now than they’ve ever been under Keatts.

So, maybe let it play out. See where things end up. State’s roster won’t be perfect next year either, but its young backcourt is starting to show signs of life late in this season. A lineup of Hayes, Moore, Seabron, Hellems, and Bates, all approaching their college potential is a group that Keatts should be able to win with, and he’s earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to player development.

So I urge you to chalk this season up as a season that definitely happened and then hold off any final conclusions on the coaching staff until after we see where this thing goes.

That patience might pay off. It might not. But you can’t say definitively either way right now. Keatts has never had a team this freshmen-heavy. He inherited a really good point guard at the start of his tenure and built around him with plug-and-play transfers for three years. We’re in the post hoc period of all that now, and simply saying “It’s Year 4, why are we not better?” fails to acknowledge that change.

This is a team being built from the ground up, not one tied together with already functional pieces. That presents a completely different set of challenges for a coach, one of which is overcoming or laboring through those freshman growing pains.

State didn’t have the personnel to overcome them, hence why expecting this to be Keatts’ best team was not fair. It’s trying to labor through them right now, and the last few games at least appeared to demonstrate pretty substantial progress.

It seems that the potential of the freshmen backcourt is universally recognized, so it should stand to reason that waiting for that potential to be realized would be worth the time and that it would be unfair to Keatts to turn on him before he has a real opportunity to accomplish that.