NC State’s Keatts aims to keep building on strong 1st year

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Kevin Keatts’ first North Carolina State squad took a bigger step than anyone expected. His program must now maintain that footing.

N.C. State (21-12) had been picked to finish 12th in the Atlantic Coast Conference and Keatts had talked about spending his first season building a foundation for his long-term approach. Yet the Wolfpack exceeded expectations right away, returning to the NCAA Tournament after a 2-year absence before losing to Seton Hall in Thursday’s first round in Wichita, Kansas.

”When I took the job, I didn’t want to just have a team,” Keatts said afterward. ”I wanted to build a program. And I thought these guys, when you look at every guy in our locker room, they did a tremendous job.

”A lot of these guys came to play for me before they even knew how I was going to play. And the guys in the program stood by us, and I’m proud of them.”

It was a good start, at least. There were marquee wins against Arizona and Duke when both were ranked No. 2, as well as the program’s second road win against a Roy Williams-coached North Carolina team in 15 tries. And that was with Keatts saying that the makeup of the roster would allow N.C. State to show only about 75 percent of the up-tempo style and pressure defense he envisioned for the future.

N.C. State ended up matching its best ACC regular-season win total (11) since the league went to an 18-game schedule in 2012-13, though the Wolfpack stumbled at the end by losing to Boston College in the ACC Tournament then to Seton Hall for an 0-2 finish.

N.C. State knows it will lose a lot of experience from this year’s roster, including leading Baylor graduate transfer Allerik Freeman as the team’s leading scorer (16.1 points) and outside shooter Sam Hunt. Senior forwards Abdul-Malik Abu and Lennard Freeman will also depart and leave holes up front.

It’s unclear whether Turkish 7-footer Omer Yurtseven and point guard Markell Johnson will return or leave to pursue professional careers.

N.C. State should have returning experience in the backcourt with Torin Dorn and Braxton Beverly. And there will be plenty of help coming in.

The Wolfpack will add two guards who sat out this season after transferring: Devon Daniels from Utah (9.9 points in 2016-17) and C.J. Bryce from Keatts’ previous stop at UNC Wilmington (17.4 points in 2016-17). N.C. State also has signed a quartet of four-star recruits that should provide some frontcourt help with 6-foot-9 forwards Manny Bates and Ian Steere, 6-7 forward Saddiq Bey and 6-6 forward Jericole Hellems.

There’s also uncertainty dealing with the FBI investigation of corruption in college basketball and how it will affect N.C. State in the offseason. On Friday, the school released a grand jury subpoena it received in January seeking records tied to former coach Mark Gottfried, former Wolfpack guard Dennis Smith Jr., and others.

”A lot of guys in our locker room, it’s their first tournament,” Dorn said. ”So it’s good to be able to return a team with some tournament experience and be able to take that into the next year and build on it – build on what we started this year.”

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