(Quick note of clarification: This article was written right as Alec’s excellent Kevin Keatts’ Dilemma was published and this one is just one of the many takes on what Kevin Keatts’ priority should be if he wishes to remain the head coach at NC State. Much of what is said here is not wildly different than many of the great points made in that article and its over 200 comments. I’m posting this today just to get it out there since it had already been written and to zero in on this one topic, not to exhaust the debate or to take away from the conversations that have already taken place.)
When looking to hire an up-and-coming coach at NC State I don’t imagine there to be a better resume. Born and raised in the region, highly successful prep school steward who had to rebuild a roster year to year. A former valued assistant to a hall of fame coach that won a national title and made deep tournament runs while there. A man hired to quickly turn around an in-state program and did so, winning the conference each year while putting a real scare in the high major teams faced out of conference. Add that to a charismatic personality, it seemed that Debbie got it right by hiring Kevin Keatts in an ACC where most of the top programs had septuagenarian (+) coaches that would be soon heading into the unknown.
Yes, Will Wade and Archie Miller were bandied about but Kevin Keatts seemed like THE hire where there was true foresight as to what he could potentially mean for the Wolfpack. Of course, there were questions about him (those defensive numbers) that needed answers at this level, but that would be true of any person hired who wasn’t already an established veteran. The thing is though what Debbie hired Kevin Keatts to do, he hasn’t done…whether that be by circumstances, personal choice, professional deficiencies, or all of the above, I truly believe Debbie hired Coach Keatts for the unique skill of what he did year to year at Hargrave just as much as anything else on his resume.
There is something common about Debbie Yow's firings and hirings during her tenure and it all centered on how important she believed high-level recruiting to be in order to find success here. As an example, when she fired TOB it was primarily because she could see the writings on the wall regarding his refusal to invest in recruiting. She was mocked for her ambitious “Alabama level recruits” statement prior to hiring Dave Doeren but Dave proved he could shore up recruiting and now has a Top 25 team in line for an ACC title run 2 years in a row. Now while Gott’s recruiting was never a problem (his dismissal was related to a number of other things) her hiring Keatts in his stead had a lot to do with his recruiting success at Louisville, his intimate familiarity with the region, but also his time at Hargrave.
Kevin Keatts, each year, had to recruit and re-recruit players to keep his team elite…and while Hargrave had a number of institutional advantages…he handled that yearly turnover successfully. I believe Debbie, just like many others, saw where college basketball on the men's side was headed. She saw the O’Bannon case’s reverberations, the talking heads unabashedly pushing for reform, the weak leadership in the NCAA, and knew the transfer market would soon explode. Hiring a coach who had all the recruiting qualities Keatts seemed to have, but also his year-to-year work at Hargrave, was a forward-thinking move…it just hasn’t panned out that way.
The broad “why” it hasn’t panned out is central to a number of conversations and debates that you can find in any thread about men's basketball for this past year or two. For this specific topic, about why Keatts’ supposed wheelhouse of knowing how to reload each year hasn’t borne fruit, it seems to be a few things (important to note that this isn’t about landing a single star transfer and a couple of depth guys, this is about crafting a successful team around the transfer portal).
Circumstantially, it’s tougher to recruit high-quality transfers under an NCAA cloud than it is to recruit impact stars at the high school level. High school players are just starting their careers so a postseason ban can be afforded and even if they find they don’t want to play under one, they can easily move on. High-quality grad transfers want a ton of PT, a showcase for professional aspirations, and/or the chance to play in March…they are on borrowed time, so navigating the potential for a lost season when there's a number of other programs calling cannot be appealing.
Another reason seems to be that he hasn’t chosen it to be his focus. Who knows how much the first reason has led to the second, but Keatts has seemed to stake his career on developing young prospective stars and surrounding them with role players. Especially with guards, he seems he really wants to mold them on his own and may have an aversion to putting the ball in the hands of guys who have developed elsewhere, guys who might push back with different philosophies. Despite the need for a transfer PG once Markell moved on, Keatts staked his claim on Cam, Shak Moore, and even Beverly, when it might have been advantageous to risk upsetting the apple cart by finding someone in the portal over them. And hey when it comes down to it, all three left with remaining eligibility as is.
Lastly, there has to be a deficiency somewhere, something in his pitch that needs to change. Guards he recruits talk a lot about how he promises offensive freedom. We assume that is compelling to kids who are trying to go to the next level as soon as possible or to transfers stuck in ridged systems, but as an educator, I can tell you kids often say they want freedom and autonomy but in the back their mind what they value long term is a healthy balance between that and a defined structure. The same can be said of parents who want their kids to not just be on good terms with their coach but to be taught how to operate on and off the court by that same person.
Ultimately it feels as if next year's roster will have a complete overhaul…not by design but by necessity due to the most recent news. It is beyond a crucial season for Coach Keatts and his program, as on the outside looking in things seem to be in crisis (especially compared to the accomplishments and stability of WBB, football, and baseball). We’ve seen 5-star recruits promise to come to campus and never arrive then go undrafted. We’ve seen beloved stars recruited out of high school face some adversity and decide to move on for what they believe are greener pastures. So frankly, the old school process of recruiting, then developing players over years may work for a select few high major programs but in today's climate, it is a mid-major mindset.
Kevin Keatts needs to do what Debbie Yow hired him to do...replicate the strategy that was the basis of his most successful tenure as a head coach...hit the portal hard (remembering that these guys are more likely to stay under the one-time transfer rule) and reload with experienced talent every year or so. Use that unique skill on your resume that helped you get hired in the first place. Because truth be told, retaining a mid-major mindset about building a team in this day and age will quickly have him right back to being a mid-major coach.