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A Critical Evaluation of the Kevin Keatts Era

I have been thinking about writing this for several weeks now, but I think it's somewhat appropriate after another disappointing loss to our bitter rival(take your pick, UNC or Duke). Unfortunately, we are where we are right now, and honestly, it's not a great place to be if you are a Wolfpack men's Basketball fan. I support this team with everything I have, and it's difficult to process this season. I'm not going to get into a detailed discussion about Kevin Keatts's future. What I am going to do is express what I feel has gone wrong during his tenure. Alec has already written about why Kevin Keatts hasn't won here in a very well-written article, but I wanted to put my thoughts into words as well.


On March 17th, 2017, Kevin Keatts was introduced as the new head coach of the Wolfpack. Fans were optimistic and were ready to put the Mark Gottfried era behind them. The Keatts era started well and did something seemingly remarkable. He beat Duke, UNC, and Wake Forest in his first game against each school. That is no easy task. He also tied for third in the ACC after being picked to finish 12th. The Wolfpack also returned to the big dance, losing to Seton Hall in the first round. things were looking up, but the Wolfpack missed the NCAA tournament the next 2 years despite winning 24 and 20 games respectively, and then things began to regress. A combination of factors has led to the problems that the program has experienced during his seven-year tenure.


Program Management


One issue that has hampered the success of the program is Keatts's overall management of the program. Yes, he was successful at UNCW, but the ACC is a different animal than the Colonial Athletic Association. Being an ACC head coach is not an easy job, and the situation that Keatts came into certainly didn't make it any easier. The program was awaiting the decision of the IARP panel regarding improper payments to former player Dennis Smith Jr., and this had at least some impact on recruiting. Ultimately, the school was fined 5000 dollars and put on one year of probation, as well as losing a scholarship, but there was no post-season ban. I was hopeful that after this was settled, things would improve, but the results were disappointing. I think scouting potential players was lacking, and evaluating the type of players needed has been below where it should be. Recruiting during Keatts tenure has been well below what it should be also, and Prep recruiting has been particularly sub-par. Staff management has been questionable at times, and scheduling has been a source of trouble as well. I want to expand on some of these individually.


Recruiting


I think Kevin Keatts underestimated just how difficult this league is to win in, and that is surprising considering that he was on the staff of Louisville under Rick Pitino. But being in charge is not nearly the same as being an assistant. there is also the fact that he left Louisville to go to UNCW for 3 years before coming to NC State. The scope of managing a program at a school like UNCW is much less broad than at NC State. I don't know if scouting has been a huge issue, or if talent evaluation has been lacking. That's not to say that Keatts hasn't brought in talent, but the fact is, his recruiting has been less successful than Mark Gottfried or Sidney Lowe. I would even argue that his recruiting has been below Herb Sendek’s classes. Things are different with the portal these days, and the changes in the transfer rules, but even the transfers have been lackluster with a few exceptions. Alerik Freeman and Jarkel Joiner were legitimate stars, and there have been others like DJ Burns and DJ Horne, but for the most part, Keatts hasn't done great in the portal. This year was better in some ways, with Mo Diarra, Ben Middlebrooks, and the aforementioned DJ Horne, but it is too little too late. A Power 5 program in the ACC should be able to do much better. I don't prescribe to the philosophy that NC State just can't recruit because of UNC and Duke. That is a narrow view, and it's simply not true. We haven't been competitive, but we can be. You don't have to recruit the top 5 guys to be competitive. You have to recruit good players and the right players. If you look at the top 25, you see teams such as South Florida, South Carolina, St Marys, and Creighton. Somehow it's supposed to be harder to recruit here than at those schools? Keatts recruitment of prep players is even more disappointing to me. There was Manny Bates, Jericole Hellems, and this year Dennis Parker, but the more telling stories are the ones that got away. Seddiq Bey, Josh Hall, Jalen Lecque, and most recently Robert Dillingham had all signed with the Wolfpack, but none of them played a single minute in a Wolfpack uniform. If that wasn't bad enough, there were transfers who either never played, or played very briefly. I'm referring to Sasha Killeya-Jones and MJ Rice. All of these factors have led to roster management problems of no small magnitude.


Roster Management


This has been one of the biggest problems of the tenure from my perspective. Keatts didn't fill the gaps that he needed to create a well-rounded team. For the first part of his tenure, he put little importance on post-play and showed a propensity to favor smaller lineups. Results weren't always terrible, and while it is true that guard play is where the emphasis is in the modern game, a strong post player is essential. Keatts hasn't had strong post-play during his time here, and because of that, rebounding has suffered, as well as rim and paint protection. Beyond this, Keatts has failed to have a true point guard who can go to the basket and create on more than one occasion. This year is a prime example, as well as the disaster two years ago when 6-8 Dereon Seabron was the only option at that point. It just seems to me that Keatts didn't carefully plan out the makeup of the Rosters. Also, when Manny Bates got injured two years ago, there wasn't a viable option in the post, and we saw the disastrous results.


Player Rotation


I don't even know how to express my feelings on this. Who and when Kevin Keatts plays guys is right up there with the world's greatest mysteries. I have always been confused by his rotations, and it has gotten worse as time has progressed. Some of his decisions just don't make any sense no matter how much you try to justify them. Another baffling thing is when a player has a good game off the bench, the next game he doesn't play at all. This happens numerous times. All that does is destroy a player's confidence. This season has been particularly strange in that it took Keatts over half the season to loosely settle on a rotation. Couple that with the fact that Mo Diarra went from playing 3 minutes a game to playing 30 minutes a game towards the latter part of the regular season, and Dennis Parker went from 30 minutes a game as a starter, and lately has barely gotten any minutes at all. Then there are the sad cases of LJ Thomas and Ernest Ross, both of whom got significant minutes last year, to being all but forgotten this year. It also seems that Breon Pass enters the games at such random times as of late. I put the blame on Keatts for these issues because I think that Kareem Richardson did a much better job of managing player rotation in the second half against Wake Forest after Keatts was ejected late in the first half. The bottom line is that some coaches just aren't good at managing player rotation. I can safely say that Keatts is one of them.


Style of Play


This might be a controversial take, but I believe that Keatts's style of play has been a problem for several reasons. First of all, if you don't have the personnel to play the way you want to play, then that's not going to go well. I love watching teams play at a fast pace while overplaying the passing lanes creating fast break opportunities. Kevin Keatts absolutely believes in this. His philosophy is that his team will get more shots because of deflections and steals, and therefore should win because of that. The problem is, that the extra shots that you get are negated by the amount of easy baskets that you give up by overcommiting on defense. That is why teams shoot such a high percentage against Keatts teams. This is compounded by the fact that when they make these easy baskets, they can get back and set up their defense which then puts NC State in the half-court offense where they struggle. Our shooting percentage goes down, while they continue to score easy baskets. If Keatts would adjust his defense, things might be much more manageable, especially against certain teams. Another problem with his style of play is the amount of stress it puts on the player's bodies. As the season wears on, and as each game wears on for that matter, the players get tired, and it hurts their ability to score. I truly believe this is why the second half of games is usually a meltdown with a long scoring drought. I would like to see how being more adaptable would affect Kevin Keatts's teams.


Lack of Discipline


I have always thought that Keatts coached teams play without a lot of discipline. There are so many times when the execution is just really bad. This is often manifested as just poor basic basketball fundamentals. Offensive execution, defensive execution, rebounding, and ball protection are all important, and the team's repeated breakdowns are a source of frustration. Without discipline, shot selection is often times a problem, and as that becomes more prominent, more and more nerves will surface, and before you know it, no one has any confidence in their ability to shoot. I am not a believer in green-lighting everyone without consequence. Lack of discipline is also a contributing factor to bad defensive breakdowns with missed assignments and coverages.


Scheduling


Keatts has done a poor job of scheduling the nonconference opponents also. The quality of the teams has hurt the Wolfpack when it comes time for selecting the NCAA tournament teams. Without quality nonconference wins, it has been very difficult to even be on the bubble because Keatts has performed very average in conference play. Playing tough teams early is a win-win because if you pull off some big wins, then you build your resume. If you don't do well against tough opponents, then you are no worse off than betting teams in the bottom 50 of the net. It's been a problem every season.


Kevin Keatts knows basketball. He understands screening and defensive coverages, and the technical aspects, but at this level, he just doesn't have the judgment and adaptability to make things work how they should. I have no ill will towards him at all. I believe this situation is just too big for his skillset, and he is hardly alone. Just ask Archie Miller and Chris Holtmann. The fact is that some coaches can transition from a mid-major program to a Power 5 program and experience amazing success, while others simply find it to be too much and never live up to expectations. If it isn't working 7 years in, then it's unlikely to work at any point. Sometimes we don't want to hear the truth, but here we are, and now we must somehow muster the resolve for an even more challenging few years.

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Man, reading this now is an interesting exercise. I would have agreed with it all a month ago -we all did. Thanks for keeping it up here.

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It was really how I felt when I wrote it. I'm glad they made me look like I didn't know what I was talking about. What a difference from then until now! Thanks for reading it!

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Exactly!

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