Coaching transitions occur in various ways in college basketball.
With these transitions comes a phrase many coaches, players, pundits and analysts love to use: culture change. Sometimes, that change takes time. Other times, that change is immediate and palpable.
The change that has taken place at N.C. State under second-year coach Kevin Keatts falls under the latter category.
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The Wolfpack were in need of a change when Keatts took the program over in March 2017. They were coming off two sub-.500 seasons under former coach Mark Gottfried, their first consecutive losing seasons since suffering five straight from 1991 to 1996. In those two years before Keatts arrived, N.C. State failed to make postseason play of any kind and won a combined nine games in Atlantic Coast Conference play.
Keatts’ first step in instituting change at N.C. State? Delivering a simple, impactful message.
“I just told them ‘Hey, I know you guys didn’t have a great year last year, but if we stick together and we work hard, then we can be successful,’” Keatts said at the ACC’s media day in October.
“And then we did it.”
Fortunately for N.C. State, Keatts had seen this situation before: at his previous stop in UNC Wilmington. When he arrived there in 2014, the Seahawks hadn’t won more than 13 games in six seasons. In his first year, Wilmington won the Colonial Athletic Association regular season title with an 18-12 record.
The following seasons saw even more improvement. The Seahawks won 25 and 29 games, respectively, and made two appearances in the NCAA Tournament. Ironically, Wilmington lost to two ACC schools — Duke and Virginia, both by single digits — in its two tournament appearances before Keatts left for N.C. State. He hadn’t even coached a game in conference before other ACC saw what he was capable of.
Said Virginia coach Tony Bennett: “They had us on the ropes,” referring to his team’s 76-71 win over Wilmington in the 2017 NCAA Tournament. “He’s not afraid to try some different things, and you can see why he was successful as a coach and recruiter (at Wilmington).”
Keatts’ new players soon saw that for themselves as he took over.
“He said he was going to make you work for everything,” said N.C. State senior guard Torin Dorn, who played two years under Gottfried and will do the same under Keatts. “He’s going to push you to be the best player you can be. He’s done nothing but that since he’s been here.”
Keatts did have one familiar face to work with in his first season at N.C. State: C.J. Bryce, who followed Keatts to Raleigh after playing two years at Wilmington. Bryce, who sat out the 2017-18 season to satisfy NCAA transfer requirements, said he followed Keatts in part because of the impact he had on him at Wilmington. But that started when Keatts recruited him out of high school.
“The thing that really stood out to me was that he promised me nothing,” Bryce said. “He told me whatever I got, it was going to be what I worked for.”
That hasn’t changed since Keatts’ arrival at N.C. State.
“I kind of like my players to be on the edge a little bit,” Keatts said. “I don’t want to give them anything. … In order to be able to play, you have to earn your right to play, to get on the floor. That’s my selling point to all of these guys. I don’t make promises.”
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At the outset, the Wolfpack weren’t expected to do much under the first-year coach. Picked by media to finish 12th in the ACC in the preseason, the Wolfpack wound up winning 21 games, beating five ranked teams in North Carolina, Duke, Clemson, Florida State and Arizona and finishing tied for third in the ACC regular season standings with 11 conference wins. The team made it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016.
Perhaps more impressive: It was done with largely the same team that had floundered the two years prior.
“We basically had the same team we had the year before,” Dorn said. “Minus a lottery pick (Dennis Smith Jr.), minus the all-time leading shot blocker in State history (BeeJay Anya). … It just goes to show that a culture change and a little discipline goes a long way.”
Another impressive facet of Keatts’ 2017-18 season: Beating fellow Tobacco Road schools Wake Forest, Duke and North Carolina, something that hadn’t been done by a first-year N.C. State coach in 99 years, when Tal Stafford accomplished the feat in 1918-19.
That win over UNC, in particular, can’t be understated: It was the Wolfpack’s first since 2015, and only their fourth since Roy Williams took over in 2003. The Tar Heels coach may be 28-4 against N.C. State, but he’s 1-1 against Keatts heading into 2018-19.
“Most of the time when we win, it’s because we got better players,” Williams said. “Kevin’s done a great job and they beat us last year. … He’s paid his dues and got more experienced in those things too.”
Again, that starts with Keatts’ top-down, wholesale changes, from the way his team practices — described as “super disciplined, super structured” by Dorn — to the way it celebrates.
“The first time we won a road game, I looked around at the guys and they didn’t know how to act, because they hadn’t won a road game the previous year,” Keatts said. “And I said, ‘You know what, guys? We’re going for ice cream.’”
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Changing behavior and mindset is one thing, but that typically doesn’t matter unless on-court production follows. With Keatts, it has. Since implementing a small-ball system, in which he often deploys four-guard lineups, N.C. State had one of its best offensive seasons in recent memory.
The Wolfpack finished tied for 33rd nationally in scoring last season, upping their scoring average by nearly four points, from 77.6 points a game in Gottfried’s last year to 81.2 points a game (a mark that has already eclipsed Gottfried’s highest-scoring offense).
While that sample size is small, you can look at what Keatts did at Wilmington for context. The season before he was hired, the Seahawks averaged 63.1 points per game, tied for 328th in the country. In Keatts’ three seasons at Wilmington, the Seahawks’ offense improved to 102nd, then 39th, then 10th in the nation, respectively, in points per game.
That sort of progression — for Keatts, at both Wilmington and N.C. State — can only be achieved one way.
“When you take over a job, you have to be pretty clear in what you believe,” Bennett said. “Because you know there’s going to be a lot of rocky places and you’re going to be challenged to not stick to what you think is the right way.”
While the Kevin Keatts era is still in its early stages, it seems the coach stuck to his plan in terms of what he wanted to implement in Year 1. But this season will perhaps be an even bigger challenge for him as he only returns three players from last year’s team.
Not that he’s worried.
“Right now if you asked our guys, they wouldn’t know what the starting lineup is and I kind of like it that way because I get them to work hard every day,” Keatts said.
Said Dorn: “The learning curve has calmed down a little bit. You know what he wants, you know what he needs. It’s more so building the team chemistry and bringing the team together and less learning what coach wants.”
It remains to be seen how Keatts’ team will perform in his second year in charge, but it’s hard to ignore the impact he has had after only one season with the Wolfpack. That goes for the coaches he competes against, too.
“I tell him on the road, I think he’s one of the bright, young coaches in our profession,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “He’s just a bright, young guy and a good role model for a lot of the young guys aspiring to be head coaches in our profession.”
It’s too soon to jump to conclusions about how Keatts will be remembered N.C. State, but it seems the culture change he’s brought — both tangible and intangible — at least has the Wolfpack trending in the right direction.
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