One year after NC State basketball coach was ‘humbled,’ Kevin Keatts can smile again

N.C. State’s players often mentioned playing with a chip on their shoulder during the season, and did again the day before the Wolfpack faced Creighton in the NCAA Tournament.

Terquavion Smith talked Thursday about a lack of national recognition, to which Jarkel Joiner added, “We don’t get a lot of love.” It spurred the Wolfpack to a 23-win season, with victories over Duke, Miami and North Carolina, and finally a place in the NCAA field for the first time since 2018.

But what about the coach, Kevin Keatts. Did he coach with a chip on his shoulder?

After a dismal 11-21 finish last season, after finishing last in the ACC, Keatts faced a lot of questions about his coaching ability, whether he was the right fit for an ACC program. More so, for the Pack.

Keatts, to his credit, questioned himself — a lot.

“There was a lot of soul-searching,” he said.

The introspection was deep, with nothing held back. It showed in the confidence and competence Keatts displayed in coaching this season, working with both a rebuilt team and coaching staff.

“I don’t know if it was a chip on my shoulder, but I was motivated,” Keatts said in an N&O interview Thursday at Ball Arena. “We learn a lot of lessons through our failures, and last year I learned a lot of different things.

“I think the motivation was there when we went out and recruited all these kids. The message was, ‘We want not only to win, but win and get back to the NCAA Tournament.’ That was the message that was sent from coaches all the way down to any player and to any player returning, and if you weren’t on the same page it probably wasn’t going to be the right situation for you.”

All that sounds simple now, after the fact. Keatts, 50, took a hard look at himself, wanted to make changes and did. He turned to the NCAA transfer portal to bring in players such as Joiner, D.J. Burns, Jack Clark and Dusan Mahorcic and added them to Smith, Casey Morsell and those returning from the 2021-22 season.

Smith could have headed to the NBA after his freshman season. He stayed

“He loves the university so much,” Keatts said.

After conversations with athletic director Boo Corrigan — “Boo pushed me to look at everything,” Keatts said — staff changes were made. Keatts brought in assistants Levi Watkins, Joel Justus and Kareem Richardson, and gave them different responsibilities.

“Essentially, I became the general manager,” Keatts said.

N.C. State was 23-11 and 12-8 in the ACC this season, with some big wins, but also some tough losses — “A rollercoaster,” Morsell called it.

Losing 72-63 to Creighton on Friday in the team’s NCAA opener was a hard way to close it out, but much to the good was done this season, That’s the big-picture view.

“This is something we can all cherish and we’ll build on it,” said Morsell, a senior guard who has a year of eligibility remaining.

In looking back to the aftermath of the 2021-22 season, Keatts said Thursday, “I wasn’t in a good place. I wasn’t having a good time.”

How long did that last?

“It went on for a couple of weeks,” he said. “I tell you what, I didn’t have the smile I have now.”

The stigma of being under extended NCAA scrutiny for violations committed by Mark Gottfried and his previous staff — the Dennis Smith Jr. fiasco — came to a closure in December 2021. An NCAA independent panel fined NCSU and put the basketball program on a one-year probation, cost it one scholarship and reduced recruiting visits and communication.

Keatts, at Corrigan’s urging, turned a lot of things upside down after assessing the 11-21 debacle. Injuries to Manny Bates, Greg Gantt and Ernest Ross factored into the losing season, but Keatts felt the sting, and the need to be better.

“I got humbled,” Keatts said Friday. “And when you get humbled you look at things a completely different way.”

Keatts divided up the coaching duties, making Justus, who came to N.C. State from Arizona State, more of an offensive coach while Watkins and RIchardson handled the defensive side — a basketball version of football coordinators, in a sense.

Watkins, who played for the Pack under former coach Herb Sendek, was hired from Mississippi and helped convince Joiner to also leave Ole Miss. Richardson, a former head coach at Missouri-Kansas City, was an assistant at Clemson last season.

“I took the opportunity, because we had a new staff, to split things up,” Keatts said. “And at times I felt like I was trying to overstep and do too much and I wanted to delegate.”

And, Keatts said, the introspection will not end after a successful season.

“I do this every year, look at myself and see how I can be better,” he said. “And I also branch it out and ask, “How can I help the program become better in all areas?’ And I’ll do the same thing this year, ask how can we improve?”

Next year’s team will have a new look. Joiner will be gone and Smith should be, and Burns and Morsell said Friday they have not decided on a return. Keatts again will look to the portal in the NCAA’s new normal.

But the Wolfpack’s 2022-23 group will always be a special team for Keatts, for Wolfpack fans. It was an entertaining team, a winning team. PNC Arena was alive again on basketball nights.

“I am proud,” Keatts said after the loss to Creighton “We did some really great things this year, maybe one of the best turnarounds in college basketball. And it’s because of the people around me and the staff that I put together, and everybody’s hard work and everybody’s commitment to get us where we needed to be.”