Whether or not Kevin Keatts can actually facilitate a turnaround at NC State is a question that can only be answered by time itself. Unfortunately for the fifth-year head coach, there might be perilously little of it.
It was a given that Keatts would see a significant amount of roster turnover this offseason, and as it turns out, a necessity as well. The Pack needed the opportunity to reconstruct some of its lineup and moving on from some players that just didn’t fit seemed like a mutually beneficial decision. Manny Bates was not part of that group though, and his exit, combined with the likely exit of Dereon Seabron, has the Wolfpack approaching total rebuild mode.
While there is an argument to be made that a total reset could be good for NC State, there’s little credence to the idea that there is time for such a thing. Therein lies the dilemma for Kevin Keatts, who has to hit about mach 4 on this roster rebuild to do anything of consequence this coming season. If you’re a believer that this is a do-or-die season for Keatts, then it stands to reason that you’re, by extension, also a believer that State is either kicking the can down the road here or about to dominate the transfer portal, the latter of which is going to be an enormous task.
To understand what NC State needs, it helps to go back to Keatts’ most successful team, which was his inaugural group in Raleigh. Keatts has never had a good defensive team in Raleigh and this group was certainly no exception, but it was damn near unstoppable on offense when everything finally started to click later in the year. This was accomplished with the same ball-screen heavy approach that everybody complains about now.
State had the recipe when Markell Johnson started to thrive midway through the season. Johnson developed into the kind of triple-threat point guard that Keatts has to run his offense through. The sophomore guard ended up as a 41% three-point shooter that season. He was effective attacking the basket and finishing and he was obviously an excellent passer. State could also surround him with 4 guys who shot better than 38% from three, allowing them to space the floor and unclog the lane because the defense couldn’t afford to lose any of these players. This included a 7-footer who was 50% from three, putting an enormous amount of pressure on the defense and making recovery near impossible out of the ball screen. It made the offense very hard to guard because State could leverage any space it could create.
When they were playing well, it was a damned-if-you-do damned-if-you-don’t scenario for the defense that Keatts has spent the better part of his tenure trying to recreate. Cam Hayes was supposed to be Johnson’s successor, but Hayes and eventually Seabron offered only a small piece of that pie. Shakeel Moore was the closest thing State has had to a triple threat point guard, but with likely none of these guys left on the roster, Keatts’ attempt to replace Johnson as the lynchpin has been a total failure.
If the Pack returns Smith and Morsell, it could start with some perimeter firepower to work with, but State is in dire need of something that resembles Markell Johnson, and Keatts’ tear through the transfer portal has to start there or nothing else matters. It’s not going to be a switch flip though. The interior is also in pretty dire need of some help. State currently has Ebe Dowuona, Ernest Ross, and Greg Gantt on the roster. While it’s easy to like the potential of some of these guys, particularly Ross, this is where Keatts’ hypothetical standing as the head coach drives a serious wedge between that and the value of actually trying to realize it. If this truly is his do-or-die year, there isn’t really time for development projects. I would always argue that player development has been one his strongest assets as a coach. Just look at who Markell Johnson, Devon Daniels, Dereon Seabron, and Manny Bates eventually became. Unless something changes rapidly though, State needs plug-and-play guys here, thus he needs to strike in the portal again.
All of this continues to add up to a haul of portal players that feels like it requires divine intervention. Keatts has had some successes and failures in the portal, but has never undertaken anything like this. Al Freeman worked out great, as did Devon Daniels. Those guys are out there, but State needs several immediate-impact versions of them to achieve a meaningful one-year turnaround.
It’s the size of this ask that sparks some serious apprehension. It just doesn’t seem possible, especially now given that the perception of the program is probably not too healthy. It makes you wonder if it’s even worth undertaking at all, but that’s irrelevant, because this is happening.
This is the dilemma for Kevin Keatts. He is certainly capable of getting talent into the program, but he has to do that at an incredibly accelerated rate to save his job. Turnarounds can happen in one year in college basketball. Keatts himself orchestrated one, but that team was largely built on the back of talent already in the program. State is bleeding players right now and has to reconstruct the roster with immediate-impact high major guys. The thing about those guys is that they’re highly sought after, meaning this is going to require some masterful recruiting work and have an extremely high degree of difficulty.
If you’re looking for silver linings, Keatts is actually a pretty decent recruiter who has a lot of playing time to sell, which is a big time asset, especially in the transfer portal. That better go a long way though, because if it doesn’t, we’re going to learn whether we were right about this being a do-or-die year, and . . . um . . . I think we probably know the answer.