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Kevin Keatts Miracle Week! What Changed?

The last week has been a whirlwind of good fuzzy feelings and sweet redemption for Wolfpack players, coaches, and fans. In Kevin Keatts own words, winning 5 games in 5 days is a miracle. NC State last won an ACC championship In men's basketball in 1987. Many of you reading this now may not have even been around then. 37 years is a long time. Years of frustration and despair were erased Saturday night in the nation's capital with an ACC championship win over UNC. At this point, the score doesn't matter nearly as much as what this team accomplished. Louisville, Syracuse, Duke, Virginia, and finally UNC were sent home as unhappy campers by a beleaguered Wolfpack team that limped into the ACC tournament as the 10-seed, having lost four in a row to close out a disappointing regular season. What changed for the Wolfpack this past week? As I see it, quite a bit.

While it was the same players, this was not the same team that we saw in the regular season. They were locked in, and they played together as a team much better than I have ever seen under Kevin Keatts. I have this to say about Kevin Keatts, he coached the best four games of his career in the tournament. I say 4 because I don't include the Louisville game. While they did win without DJ Horne, they didn't have much of a defensive presence against the Cardinals. The last 4 games however were so well-coached that I have to recognize that. I will admit that I have not been Kevin Keatts greatest fan, but what transpired last week was such a thing of beauty. He adapted their usual style of play based on the opponents, and I have never seen a Keatts team play with so much poise and discipline, especially in the half-court offense. He backed off the usual torrid pace and also adjusted the defensive coverages In ways I have never seen him do. I saw drop coverages, some almost pack line schemes, and I even saw DJ Burns hedge on some high ball screens. Casey Morsell was very adept at going under screens and still maintaining close coverage. Keatts recognized that he had to adjust his approach to defense because of the potential of playing 5 games in five days. They were not as aggressive overplaying passing lanes as they normally were, but they gave up a lot fewer easy shots. The other team had to earn their points. It turns out that this team can play defense in the half-court against really good opponents.

The emergence of Mo Diarra, Ben Middlebrooks, and Michael O’Connell has been a game-changer for this team. I don't know if it was a coaching thing, or if O’Connell took it upon himself to look for his offense more, but it paid off in a big way during the tournament. He scored 66 points in the five games, and he saved the day against Virginia with “the O’Connell miracle” 3 that sent the game into overtime. Beyond his scoring was his poise and leadership at point guard. He had the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the regular season. He takes care of the basketball and he plays much better defense than he gets credit for. He was named to the first team all-tournament team, and he earned it. Middlebrooks is a tough defender who can rebound. He is also great at slipping screens on the pick-and-roll as he dives to the basket. He destroyed Virginia and their hard-hedging defense. Then there is Mo Diarra. I can't say enough about what he means to this team. He had a thousand rebounds ( it was actually 60) during the five games, and he also contributed quite a bit offensively as well. His value as a defender is often undervalued as well. He played a ton of minutes in the tournament because he was vital to the success of Wolfpack. He has turned into a very versatile and athletic post player. He was named second team all tournament, but I think he deserved first team.

The half-court offense was by far the best it had been all season. There were looks that I hadn't seen this year, with better spacing and a lot of pinscreens with dribble handoffs curling into the lane. There were sets to get DJ Burns the ball in the short corner, but also to get him the ball at the top of the key, along with his usual block post-ups. Burns played with a determination that I hadn't seen. He scored when he was not double-teamed, and he found the open man when he was. He made great decisions and for the most part, stayed out of foul trouble. The screens were solid and crisp and the shot selection was really good. If you shoot over 50% from the field against UNC, it's not just luck. State just flat-out beat them in the half-court.

Kudos to Keatts and his staff for their preparation During the tournament. The team looked prepared, especially for the last four games. It seems like the scouting was utilized very well, and they exploited their opponent's weaknesses. It was enjoyable to watch and it was good quality basketball. DJ Burns, in a fitting end to his ACC career, won the tournament MVP. He earned it. He also outplayed Armando Bacot, who has seemingly been at UNC for eternity.

The thing that stands out to me the most is how well this team played together. There was no jealousy over playing time or shot opportunities, and there was a determination as a collective that you don't often see these days. There were so many noticeable changes in the way this team played last week. It is a huge transformation for a team that had been written off by everyone including me. I have been fortunate to witness ACC championships in my life, and for those of you who are experiencing your first, I know how you must feel. It's amazing and it never gets old. 37 years is a long time! I hope Adidas makes great dancing shoes because the Wolfpack is going dancing and I hope it's a marathon. And for those who might not believe we can make a run, all I can say is 1983 baby! This team is now playing up to their potential, and playing with so much confidence anything can happen. Let's enjoy this and take them into the tournament believing that they can win it all. I'm so proud of this team, and so happy for everyone close to the program. This is the shot in the arm that the program needed. After all, why not us? Get ready Texas Tech, here we come!


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