No. 24 N.C. State Wolfpack: Can Kevin Keatts win without frontcourt?

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Every day at Noon ET, we will be releasing an in-depth preview of one member of our Preseason Top 25.

Today we dive into No. 24 N.C. State.


Kevin Keatts is in just his second season as the head coach of the Wolfpack but he’s already managed to more or less completely turn over a roster that had developed a reputation for completely underachieving.

Just two of N.C. State’s scholarship players were at N.C. State when Keatts was hired — point guard Markell Johnson and wing Torin Dorn. Of the 11 players that Keatts has landed, eight of them came via the transfer market, and Johnson is the only non-freshman on the roster that began his collegiate career in Raleigh.

Normally it takes three or four seasons before a new head coach is able to turn a roster over and get “his guys” into the program

With Keatts, it took him all of 18 months, and he already is coming off of a surprise trip to the 2018 NCAA tournament to boot.

The question that needs to be answered is this: Did Keatts simply find a way to get it done with the talent that Mark Gottfried let waste away on his roster last season?

Or is he just getting started?

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N.C. STATE WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

This team looks so much like the juggernauts that Keatts built at UNC Wilmington.

Prior to his move to Raleigh, Keatts spent three seasons with the Seahawks. He won at least a share of the CAA regular season title all three years, getting to the NCAA tournament twice where he lost by single-digits to ACC powerhouses Virginia and Duke.

Those UNCW teams were built around a certain style of play that isn’t all that dissimilar from what Shaka Smart did during his VCU days. UNCW wasn’t playing an all-out, gambling defense like Havoc, but they did defend full court and they did gamble for steals quite a bit and, most importantly, they were built around the idea that Keatts could play four guards at once, forcing enough turnovers with his pressure and creating enough mismatches on the offensive end that his team would win despite being outsized every time they stepped on the court.

Reading the tea leaves, it’s not hard to envision the Wolfpack doing something very similar this season. Of the 11 players that are eligible to play this year after it was announced that freshman Immanuel Bates will redshirt following shoulder surgery, seven of them are guards and two of their forwards are decidedly perimeter-oriented.

And that depth on the perimeter isn’t just bodies. They’re talented. Let’s start with Torin Dorn, the redshirt senior transfer from Charlotte that averaged 13.9 points last season. At 6-foot-5, I would not be surprised to see Dorn get quite a few minutes playing as a four for the Wolfpack; Keatts’ best teams at UNCW used Chris Flemmings, a 6-foot-5, 175-pound Division II transfer as their de-facto power forward, and he won himself a CAA Player of the Year award in the process.

Torin Dorn (Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Along those same lines, I can see C.J. Bryce getting plenty of minutes alongside Dorn. Bryce, who also stands 6-foot-5, was a first-team all-CAA player as a sophomore at UNCW when he averaged 17.4 points. He followed Keatts to N.C. State and sat last season out as a redshirt.

Markell Johnson is in line for the starting point guard gig after leading the ACC in assists a season ago, and I would not be shocked to see him partnered with Braxton Beverly in the backcourt once again. Beverly started 26 games and averaged 9.5 points and 3.9 assists as a freshman after transferring into the program from Ohio State.

The reason I don’t think it is a guarantee that Beverly starts is due to the pieces that Keatts is bringing in around him. Eric Lockett is a graduate transfer from FIU that averaged 14.3 points and 6.5 boards last season. Devon Daniels is a redshirt sophomore that sat out last season after averaging 9.9 points as a freshman at Utah. Blake Harris, a former top 100 recruit, will be eligible immediately after transferring into N.C. State from Missouri, where he averaged 3.8 points before leaving the team in January.

Beverly has the inside track to a starting spot, but he is going to have to earn it, and that’s unequivocally a good thing if you are an N.C. State fan, because Beverly is a good player.

And that’s really what this comes down to for the Wolfpack.

Their guards are really good, there are a lot of them and if Keatts has proven anything during his coaching career, it’s that he can win with teams that have good guards.

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Markell Johnson (Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

BUT N.C. STATE IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

There really is no frontcourt depth to speak of.

And while the guards are the players that have gotten all of the attention for Keatts’ best UNCW teams, the truth is that those teams had big men that were really good at doing what they needed to do to anchor that defense.

Neither C.J. Gettys nor Davontae Cacok put up stat lines that would ‘wow’ you, but they were really good at two things: Rebounding the ball and defending the rim.

I don’t know if there is a guy on this roster that can do those things. Wyatt Walker averaged 12.9 points and 9.7 boards for Samford back in 2016-17, but he dealt with a knee injury last season that limited him to just two games, and even then, he’s 6-foot-9 and had just 56 blocks in two-plus years. D.J. Funderburk is 6-foot-10, but he weighs just 210 pounds and is much more of a wing than he is a post. Put another way, he averaged just 4.4 boards in Junior College last season. Ian Steere is a good player but he’s not exactly a game-changing recruit; you don’t want him anchoring the frontcourt as a freshman.

The cruel irony is that Immanuel Bates might have been the guy that could help fill that void, but he’s going to redshirt to recover from his shoulder surgery, and even when healthy, he, like Steere, is not necessarily someone you want to rely on for more than some minutes off the bench.

This is an issue for a couple of reasons:

  1. When you play a gambling style of defense, having someone that can erase shots at the rim is so important. The offense is far more likely to be able to get to the rim, and making it just that much more difficult for those layups to be scored makes all the difference.
  2. N.C. State is already going to be playing small, which inherently hinders them on the glass. Having a big man on the floor that can vacuum up caroms on the defensive end helps to end possessions. As the saying goes, forcing a miss only matters if you get rebound.

This is likely going to be an issue for this team all season long. The answer is less solving the problem and more finding a way to work around it.

Braxton Beverly (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

THE X-FACTOR

It really is incredible just how many new faces there are going to be on this roster.

Dorn and Johnson are the only players that have been in Raleigh for more than two years. Just five of the 13 players on scholarship have been on campus for one year, and three of those five transferred into the program and sat out last season as redshirts.

Put another way, there is a ton of experience on this roster, but they have very little experience actually playing with each other.

I’d love to be able to analyze this deeper, but it’s really simple: We don’t know how teams are going to come together until we see them, you know, come together.

Role allocation, role acceptance, understanding the plays, learning defensive assignments. These are the things that are going to determine if the Wolfpack hit their ceiling.

2018-19 OUTLOOK

And frankly, I think that ceiling is pretty high.

I am a believer in Kevin Keatts. I think he’s a terrific basketball coach and a guy that will find a way to get the most out of the talent that is on his roster, and there is plenty of talent on this roster. It is also the kind of roster makeup that Keatts has had success with in the past.

That’s enough to look at this team and see a group that should make a return trip to the NCAA tournament and make a run at finishing fourth — behind Duke, Virginia and North Carolina — in the ACC.

But it’s hardly a guarantee.

Beyond the simple fact that we have no idea how this group is going to come together and the issues they have in the frontcourt, there are questions to be asked about whether or not this team has a go-to guy, or if the players that transferred into the program are anything more than role playing cast-offs from another program, or if the style that Keatts had success with in the CAA will work as well in the ACC.

N.C. State is going to be fun to follow this year precisely because of that fact.

We don’t really know what they are going to do this season. Hell, we don’t even really know what the starting lineup is going to be.

All we really know is they have talent on paper and one of the best young coaches in the league.

That’s a good combination of things to have.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 25 Marquette

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.

South Carolina, Staley cancel BYU games over racial incident

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COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina and women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley have canceled a home-and-home series with BYU over a recent racial incident where a Cougars fan yelled slurs at a Duke volleyball player.

The Gamecocks were scheduled to start the season at home against BYU on Nov. 7, then play at the Utah campus during the 2023-24 season.

But Staley cited BYU’s home volleyball match last month as reason for calling off the series.

“As a head coach, my job is to do what’s best for my players and staff,” Staley said in a statement released by South Carolina on Friday. “The incident at BYU has led me to reevaluate our home-and-home, and I don’t feel that this is the right time for us to engage in this series.”

Duke sophomore Rachel Richardson, a Black member of the school’s volleyball team, said she heard racial slurs from the stands during the match.

BYU apologized for the incident and Richardson said the school’s volleyball players reached out to her in support.

South Carolina said it was searching for another home opponent to start the season.

Gamecocks athletic director Ray Tanner spoke with Staley about the series and supported the decision to call off the games.