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Why Kevin Keatts Hasn't Won at NC State

The honeymoon phase for Kevin Keatts was delightful. The UNC-Wilmington head coach was hired in 2017 to clean up the mess that Mark Gottfried left behind, and after fortifying a talented roster with some offseason additions, he largely did that. Keatts won more ACC games in his first season than Mark Gottfried did in his last two years combined. 


What seemed like a launch point for the program’s rebirth was instead a high point that has not been reached again in the following six years, and the temperature of Keatts’ seat as the head coach has steadily risen since. Now, in year seven where State’s tournament chances appear moribund, the best case scenario for Kevin Keatts is year eight becoming a do-or-die season. 


From a purely results standpoint, Keatts’ seven years have largely just been an extension of Gottfried’s six. Gott peaked at 4 games over .500 in the league. Keatts also peaked at 4 games over .500 in the league. Gott led two basement-dwellers in his six years. Keatts has led one in seven. Both coaches spent the majority of their seasons at or barely north of the bubble. Gottfried’s teams were more talented, thus posting a higher ceiling, while Keatts’ teams were more consistent, but with a much lower ceiling. The differences are mostly extraneous. State has a conference winning percentage between .440 and .600 in 10 of the last 13 seasons. It's all the same.


The idea that Keatts is somehow undermanned as an Xs and Os coach has grown trite in addition to just being false. The most annoying narrative about the man is that he can’t draw up a play or that he doesn’t run a real halfcourt offense. In NC State’s win at Clemson, we saw Keatts create leverage for DJ Horne with all sorts of actions beyond a basic high or side pick-and-roll including ram, staggered DHOs, a double pin-down play he ran for Terquavion Smith, 77 pick-and-roll, and more. 


This is probably the most diverse offense we’ve seen from Keatts in seven years, but it’s running these actions with guards that have lacked versatility, and that stifled the Pack’s offense in the early parts of the season. State is near the bottom nationally in percentage of shots taken at the rim, and that’s not a schematic thing. This team lacks guards that have the ability to create rim pressure. It’s shown up all year. 


Keatts basically jettisoned the spread pick-and-roll concepts as the offense’s bread and butter for the DJ Burns short corner post-up sets as a response to this. These have been pretty darn effective too, because Burns actually possesses some versatility as a player. They’ve initiated some of State’s best ball movement of the season, all while Burns still wasn’t quite the scorer he was last year. 


This has been one of the better in-season coaching efforts of Keatts’ career. With Burns starting to play better and Horne starting to find some versatility thanks to an effort to get to his floater, Keatts has rescued this offense from the depths, but with good offense too often comes bad defense this season. Burns’ presence is necessary to initiate offense, but he’s a massive liability as a drop defender and switch defender in pick and roll, and State got banjaxed overhelping him against Syracuse. 


It’s a personnel issue that doesn’t have an obvious answer other than Ben Middlebrooks playing really well. State is a good defensive team with Diarra and Middlebrooks, but running such a lineup requires benching your most important offensive player. Keatts failed to build a roster with a real pick-and-roll point guard, and it required certain adjustments on offense that handcuffed the team defensively.


Basketball is a personnel-driven game. Whether you want to believe it or not, there is only so much you can do as a coach to adjust your approach to fit your personnel, and I would argue that we are seeing Keatts’ strongest attempt to do that right now in the current season. Here is a coach that has lived as a spread pick-and-roll coach, and his teams are playing more through the post than anything else because that’s where it creates the most matchup issues. It’s come up short though for all the reasons above. 


That is the storyline with Kevin Keatts. This tenure, should it end soon, will be defined less by the players that played for him and more by the ones that did not. We don’t need to rehash all of this. To be fair to Kevin Keatts is to acknowledge that not all of this is his fault, but to be fair to the 2.7 million bills he is receiving is to acknowledge that it doesn’t really matter in the end. This is a results business, and how you got the results only matters for so long. 


There was a chance, maybe even an expectation, that NC State would have two years of basketball teams that rostered Markell Johnson, Omer Yurtseven, and Saddiq Bey. These things enter the history books as what-ifs, changing Keatts’ place in those books as they do. That’s a microcosm of the whole thing. Two NBA guys with a nationally A-grade point guard. Instead, those spots were filled by Jericole Hellems, Wyatt Walker, Manny Bates, and DJ Funderburk. Not all bad players, but certainly not the same level of talent and ability.


Pick basically any season after the first one and you can ID a major roster miss. In 18-19, State’s frontline was just nowhere near good enough. In 19-20, State certainly could have used Jalen Lecque. In 20-21, Cam Hayes and Braxton Beverly played majority minutes at point guard. Hayes was a poor scout and was never an ACC guard and Beverly was always an off-ball player. In 21-22, Hayes struggled mightily until State eventually salvaged something offensively by putting Seabron on the ball. It was a defensive nightmare though after Bates’ injury. In 22-23, State lost Mahorcic to injury and it hampered the offense by eliminating its only real roll threat and the defense by eliminating its only useful drop defender. This year, Dillingham went to Kentucky and State was left without a real modern point guard, and its issues have compounded from there. This is the longest paragraph of this entire article and it’s really just scratching the surface. 


Roster turmoil is pretty normal now in college basketball. A certain amount of it is inevitable, and navigating that is part of the job. This is the part of the job where Keatts has come up short. It’s not a schematic issue. Keatts didn’t have the league’s number one offense in his first year just by accident. There is no underachievement relative to talent here in any large quantity. There is just a failure to acquire talent as a result of (reader’s choice). 


When this stuff goes wrong, it doesn’t just leave a hole in the lineup. It cascades throughout the entire roster. If Dillingham was on this team, DJ Horne would be in his more natural position as a two-guard, spacing the floor and taking more uncontested shots. Casey Morsell would never have been asked to create in isolation as a late shot-clock set. Burns would not be asked to play as many minutes because you wouldn’t fear a dramatic offensive initiation issue with Middlebrooks in the game, thus the defense would improve.


That's what this about; roster management and recruiting. It's not about scheme or in-game coaching. It's most certainly not about UNC and Duke, and if you suggest it is I will mail you a moldy sponge. You can make an argument that Keatts left some to be desired with player development, but that's squishy to me. Roster management has been an airball.


Things really could have gone very differently for Kevin Keatts, but he could not maintain the roster. One might argue that he’s cursed by a bog witch. Another may place all the blame on him. The truth is somewhere in the middle, as each situation is unique. The details are superfluous though. It doesn’t really matter. When apathy starts to arise, it’s the harbinger of the end. My personal opinions on the man do not change that one bit. 


In a way, I do feel bad for Keatts, even as he made enough money to retire at three different lake houses. He’s done some good things here. He offered a cultural reconstruction following the messy Gottfried divorce. He beat four top-10 teams in his first 40 games. He’s got some fire in his belly, and not just because he ate the food in Tally. He has a very modern approach to the game, and these are all good things, but seven years in, it hasn’t proven to add up to anything. So it goes. 


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Derick Brown
Derick Brown
3月11日

My issue is the product on the floor. I DESPISE bad basketball. Players that don’t play smart and consistently make bad on court decisions. If they lose every game but are battling hard. I can live with that. The other thing is be great at something. Hang your hat and stake your reputation on something. Defense. Rebounding. Offense. Zone. Man to man. Be great at some aspect of the game. The only thing I know they will do beyond the shadow of doubt is fail.

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John Allen
John Allen
2月21日

Well thought out, dispationate, assessment.

Keatts can definitely coach. His peers will tell you that. And if you are on a level playing field, talent wise, like he was at UNC-W, he's going to do well. And to his credit, his signature wins at State were 100% against more talented teams. That says something about his abilities as a coach.

But recruiting wise, as you said, he's struggled. And the longer he struggles, the less appealing he appears as a recruit's destination.

Someone posted a list on X earlier today showing all of the D1 teams that had 7+ transfers, and pointing out that none of them are likely to make the tournament. One of those teams is St John's,…

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John Allen
John Allen
2月22日
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Bob:

I have yet to see even one person, either write an article or post a comment, that disagrees with you.

The fanbase seems to universally agree that 7 years is enough, we have not gotten the results we had hoped for, it's time for change.


The missing element is those making the decision. Are they listening? We haven't yet heard anything from them. I like to think it's simply professionalism. There is no benefit to releasing a coach before the end of a season. So why discuss it publically? We made that mistake with Gottfried, let's not do it again. But if Corrigan is going to do it, he needs to be preparing.


If it happens ...

The big…


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