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Kevin Keatts Broke Norms to Become a Winner Again

With time now to reflect back on last month, the thing that continues to stand out is just how different this NC State men's basketball team was than the initial mold Kevin Keatts was trying to build towards. It's a pretty satisfying showing for a coach who had been battling an inane narrative that he's not capable of adjusting. Keatts succeeded over the course of this run in part thanks to personnel-specific game planning that deviated from the norm, and not just from Kevin Keatts' norm, but from the modern ideas behind most successful basketball teams.

A lot gets made out of shot selection in basketball’s three-point-shot era because the numbers dictate that shots at the rim and shots from three are two most efficient shots in the game. Everybody wants a shot chart that reflects this, à la what Nate Oats has done at Alabama. In a perfect world, this is what you get. The numbers aren’t lying, but you also have to coach to the personnel that you’ve assembled. Just because those are the most efficient shots in the largest possible sample size of college basketball does not mean they’re the most efficient shots for a single player against a single defensive schematic. 

There is no better example of this than DJ Horne, a dynamite basketball player who shot 52% from two in the postseason during a 9-1 run, but took only 23 of his 71 two-point attempts at the rim. These numbers are actually kind of crazy. Horne shot 52% (12/23) at the rim in the postseason and 52% (25/48) away from the rim but inside the arc. When you consider the expected differences in efficiency with those two shot categories and sample sizes and the subset of at-the-rim shots that were just open layups in transition, it really paints a picture of how much more effective Horne was in the mid-range than attacking the basket.

The Pack had offensive issues early in the season that stemmed from a lack of guard play that could create rim pressure, and while it’s true that Horne did do a better job getting a piece of the paint later in the year, by and large, that issue did not go anywhere. However, Horne excelled in the mid-range and from three, and State leaned on what its players did well. Keatts let DJ Horne be DJ Horne. He never forced him into a style of play that he didn't excel in, even as it led to him taking (and making) a lot of "bad shots." It was also able to create a similar effect to dribble penetration but in slow motion with DJ Burns, and the Pack got high-level spot-up shooting from Michael O’Connell and Jayden Taylor. 

There is more than one way to win a basketball game, and NC State exemplified that concept during the postseason. It proved it by essentially running two offenses at the same time and being very malleable on the defensive end. The Pack won with defense first, and it designed offensive actions around the best shots for its players, not the best shots in general. Posting up your big 18 feet from the basket and getting a high volume of mid-range shots from your guards would be a losing proposition for many teams, but it wasn’t for NC State. 

Keatts designed offensive actions around less traditional skill sets in the modern game, and it worked because they played to the strengths of their personnel. Burns can execute such a lengthy back down with ease, and while playing drop coverage against a small guard like Horne who can’t really finish in the paint sounds intuitive, that idea starts to fall apart when Horne’s floater starts hitting at a 70% clip and you can’t run under a down screen in a zoom action or Horne will just fade the screen and hit a three.

The Pack got the absolute most out of the skill sets it had available to it, and it won basketball games not by fixing its deficiencies, but by operating in spite of them. That’s a really good piece of coaching and an excellent example of adapting actions to your personnel, something that should be noted by everyone as the death knell to the silliest narrative about Kevin Keatts. 

On the other side of the court is where we saw some of the best game planning and execution that State basketball has produced in 15 years. The Marquette and Purdue games really stood out as matchup problems for the Pack. Those teams shot a combined 36.5%. Here are the scoring totals from Purdue and Marquette in the NCAA Tournament, randomized. Find the two games against NC State. 

  • 78

  • 80

  • 106

  • 63

  • 87

  • 72

  • 81

  • 58

Marquette seemed custom-built to score on NC State with a dominant pick-and-roll attack and a four-out offense that made it impossible to invert the Burns and Diarra assignments. State placed its bets on stopping the initial action, overhelping at the rim with Burns on Ighodaro. It let Marquette put Burns in the ball-screen actions, allowed Diarra to clog the paint, and asked David Joplin to shoot the ball well enough to beat them. It was a harrowing bet, but the right one to place. Diarra was excellent in executing long closeouts and Joplin missed 214 shots. 

Purdue created obvious size issues, but State handled the problems Edey posed pretty well. For all his size, Edey is not strong with the basketball. He has one move shooting away from the basket. You have a chance to be successful digging at the ball in the post with a player like this because you know he’s stepping away from the basket and he’s vulnerable. The Pack officially forced 5 turnovers from Edey (actually was 6) and held him to his lowest point total of the tournament. It gave up a few threes in the process, but 63 points didn’t happen by accident. State’s poor shooting performance doomed it, but it did more than enough to win on defense. 

NC State started thriving on the back of an inside-out game, mid-range shooting, and elite halfcourt defense. Watching Keatts win these basketball games with a combination of the most anti-Kevin Keatts style of play possible and getting every conceivable ounce from each player on the court was a delight. It was a masterful coaching job and a cogent display of the staff's adaptability. You just can't say enough about the job these guys did. As DJ Burns has pointed out, it's time to give the man some respect.


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