Uneasy times: Where things stand with Kevin Keatts, NC State

Thanks to another monster performance from Alondes Williams — 17 points, 15 in the second half — Wake Forest defeated NC State in Raleigh. In front of a sparse crowd, the Demon Deacons went on a 21-4 run over the final seven minutes, winning 69-51. Things aren’t going great for Kevin Keatts and NC State.

The Wake Forest defeat marks the team’s fifth straight loss. NC State is now 3-11 in ACC play; the Wolfpack have lost seven of their last eight games. NC State hasn’t won consecutive games since the quad-overtime victory against Nebraska — back on Dec. 1.

Obviously, there’s necessary context here. NC State has been gutted with injuries. Unfortunately, what happened with Manny Bates less than one minute into the season set the tone for the rest of the year.

The Wolfpack are also young, which Keatts likes to make mention of: it can be painfully hard to win with a lack of experience.


Unable To Defend

More specifically, the frontcourt injuries and youth have combined to create what is a very bad defense in Raleigh. Normally, NC State switches 1-4, ices side screen-roll action and funnels middle drivers to a rim protector.

Last year, this was Bates, an excellent shot-blocker. Ebenezer Dowuona (7.4 percent block rate) has stepped up and played hard as hell on defense, but he’s just not the same force.

NC State has mixed in some zone this season, too, including the Wake Forest matchup; however, changing theoretical speeds on defense hasn’t worked, either.

According to Synergy Sports, NC State’s half-court man-to-man defense ranks No. 326 nationally in efficiency: 0.92 points per possession. Conversely, the zone (in a much smaller sample) has allowed 1.0 points per half-court possession — No. 223.

In terms of adjusted defensive efficiency, NC State ranks No. 235 nationally, per KenPom. This team is on pace to have the program’s lowest-rated defense of the KenPom era, which dates back to the 1996-97 season.

A lack of depth has damaged NC State, too. The bench accounts for less than 27 percent of the team’s minutes, according to KenPom: No. 279 nationally.

Moreover, Dereon Seabron, the team’s star player, has to expend so much energy on offense; it likely eats into some of his intriguing defensive upside. Seabron’s minutes share and usage rate (27.1 percent) are a taxing load for one player.

Of course, in textbook NC State fashion, the Pack have lost some nail-bitters this season, too, including a near-victory over then-No. 1 Purdue and Jaden Ivey.


Positive Developments

To be clear, there are some real success stories with this roster. First, Keatts and his staff deserve credit for the continued buy-in of thet players. It’s been a struggle, but in a lost season, NC State continues to scrap and fight. That matters — even if the Pack just don’t have quite enough to pull out wins.

Seabron’s ascent is one of the coolest stories in college basketball this season, too. Late in the 2020-21 season, as NC State regrouped and made a run following the Devon Daniels injury, Seabron emerged as an intriguing wing/guard options and an impactful open-floor player.

What he’s done to build off that — and how NC State’s staff has empowered his game — is tremendous. Seabron’s gone from “ACC rotation player” to a lead ball-handler that should be first-team All-ACC and a legit NBA Draft prospect. As a 6-foot-7 pick-and-roll creator, there’s only so much teams can do to defend Seabron.

Seabron isn’t the only player development success story from this season, though.

Dowuona played only 48 minutes last year. As a sophomore, however, Dowuona has been a presence on defense for the Wolfpack. He’s still limited on offense, which complicates things for Seabron in the pick-and-roll game, and he makes mistakes on defense, but for the most part: Dowuona has turned into a productive ACC big man.

There’s also freshman shooting guard Terquavion Smith, an electric scorer who has only gotten better and better this season. Some of that growth comes from his obvious chemistry with Seabron; those play can play beautiful slash-and-kick basketball. Seabron has assisted on 32 of Smith’s field goals, the most of any two-man combination on the roster, per CBB Analytics.

Smith is an example of this staff’s ability to evaluate and develop talent. NC State has even started to mix in more designed off-ball actions for Smith.

At times, NC State’s playbook can seem a little rote — spread ball screen after spread ball screen. However, Keatts and his staff have shown a willingness to mix in new concepts, which fit the team’s personnel. This was apparent at the end of the 2020-21 season, when NC State reworked the offense around playing two traditional bigs at the same time: Bates and DJ Funderburk.


A Hazy Fit

Unfortunately, NC State has been unable to effectively weave Seabron and Smith together with Cam Hayes.

Coming off a solid freshman campaign, Hayes was pegged as the team’s point guard ahead of the season. With Shakeel Moore off to Mississippi State, there were some reasons for optimism with Hayes; however, concerns lurked around the corner, too.

NC State’s offense is heavy on pick-and-roll action — more so than just about any other program in the ACC. This puts a lot on the plate of the team’s lead creator, which looked to be Hayes. That transition, however, just hasn’t gone well.

Hayes has certainly had moments this season; he’ll come off a high ball screen, with the opposing screen defender dropped, and look for his jumper or attack downhill. Hayes has shot better at the rim this season, too: 51.4 percent, up from 38.5 percent his freshman year.

Getting into the paint and finishing through contact like this is meaningful. Across the board, though, Hayes has suffered a power outage with his jumper. His 3-point shooting has dipped to 20.2 percent, down from 36.4 percent as a freshman. Hayes’ effective shooting rate has dropped more than 11 percentage points, too: 36.1 percent.

On the surface, Hayes seems like an ideal fit to operate NC State’s offense; he’s a pure pick-and-roll guard. Hayes, however, while talented, doesn’t generate a lot of rim pressure. His half-court offense is predicated on his pull-up jumper, which fell off a cliff this season.

Confidence and timing are everything on the basketball court. Hayes is a good offensive player, but when you’re struggling, it becomes all too easy to overthink or second-guess.

That’s why — as the season has progressed — Seabron has taken on more of the offense’s primary possessions. Seabron isn’t much of a shooter, but he’s wired to get into the paint and make plays.

For the most part, this shift kept NC State’s offense humming. The Wolfpack are a borderline top-50 unit. Things get sticky, though, when the pick-and-roll game stumbles, which can happen with Dowuona, who offers little beyond lob finishing and offensive rebounds.

Dowuona’s limitations in the middle of the floor allow opposing defenses to pin NC State’s pick-and-roll offense on one side of the floor.

(This same stuff happened with Bates and Funderburk, too. Neither were very good at taking advantage of ice coverages.)

Essentially, opponents work to deny Seabron the middle of the floor. Seabron can be forced to give the ball up in these situations, which is an obvious win for the defense.

Now, Seabron is awesome and he still manages to slash his way to the rim; even so, it’s an uphill battle on these possessions.

Smith has been a great source of secondary creation, which has eased some of the concerns.

NC State has found ways to combine Seabron and Smith together in actions — like this 1-2 Ram Ghost screen action.

The hope, obviously, was that Hayes would click in this role, too. That just hasn’t happened, though. According to Synergy Sports, Hayes has scored just 0.63 points per spot-up possession this season (32.4 eFG%).

This development raises questions: is Hayes fit for an offensive role with less time on the basketball? Can he meaningfully contribute as a secondary/spot-up player? What does that mean going forward? Was it wise to put so much creation responsibility on Seabron’s shoulders?

The decision was justifiable for Keatts. It’s not like Hayes didn’t share the floor with other higher-usage creators last season: Daniels, Moore and Braxton Beverly. Plus, Seabron is so good; how could you not want him to be the top creator?

There’s probably some bad luck and confidence stuff at play. Basketball is a simple game, but it can be really hard at times, too. For a variety of reasons — some unexplainable — NC State is -7 in 476 minutes with Seabron and Hayes on the floor together, per Pivot Analysis.

Unsurprisingly, the offense has been pretty good in those minutes (1.11 points per possession), but the defense is really bad. That’s the story of the season.


Moving Forward with Kevin Keatts?

Back in late December, NC State basketball managed to avoid serious penalties from the NCAA’s IARP. Former coach Mark Gottfried, who ran the program while the infraction occurred, was hit with a one-year show cause. Former assistant coach Orlando Early received a six-year show cause.

NC State would need to pay a small fine and got hit with some smaller recruiting sanctions. However, the cloud that hung over NC State and Kevin Keatts — for nearly five years — was gone. Could this lead to a new path forward?

For now, in a macro sense, that question is impossible to answer. With that said, it seemed as though Keatts would at least have the opportunity to build up and out. NC State hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2018 — Keatts’ first season in Raleigh. However, if a postseason ban was the thing hurting or hard-capping NC State, that fear is at least off the table.

Of course, NC State was upset by a bad Wright State team in Raleigh the day after the decision was announced. Since the IARP’s ruling, the Wolfpack have won a total of three games.

To an extent, the deck has been stacked against him during his time at NC State, but Keatts continues to get effort from his players, which matters. How much that matters, though, with a roster likely to see a high amount of turnover, remains to be seen.

Outside of Chris Mack at Louisville, it’s hard to find another head coach that saw his resume take a larger hit than Keatts with the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That NC State team was going to make the 68-team field.

Keep in mind: the 2018-19 team fell just short of making the field despite a NET ranking of 33, in the debut season of the NET. NC State could easily argue that it was snubbed this season.

Think about that: Keatts is weirdly close to taking his first three teams at NC State to the NCAA Tournament, which would’ve followed two straight appearance for Keatts while at UNC Wilmington. That alters the entire paradigm.

Instead, Keatts is still just 0-1 in NCAA Tournament games with the Wolfpack. He’s not making it back this season. Depending on how things shake out, Year 6 isn’t super encouraging, either.

Keatts has won 59 percent of his games at NC State, including three 20-win seasons. During all five of his seasons, the Wolfpack have produced a top-65 offense in terms of adjusted efficiency. Making the NCAA Tournament shouldn’t be the only criteria for determining the overall health of a program, but it definitely matters.

In the interim, there are still important games on the horizon for NC State. Keatts can’t stub his toe against teams like Pittsburgh and Boston College. Rematches with Wake Forest and UNC loom as possible hinge points, too, although that’s a troublesome basket to put one’s hope in.

Of course, it seems a little reductive to boil things down to something that’s so random. Like, either a school has its coach or it doesn’t, and making determinations — ones that impact lives and millions of dollars — based off game-to-game results with a limited roster is far from ideal.


What’s The Roster?

A larger concern, however, is the team’s roster makeup following the season. Seabron could/should jump to the NBA. Bates will seemingly head to the pros, too. Jericole Hellems is in his fourth season of college basketball; in theory, he could return to State for one more year, but he could also jump to another program. There are plenty of teams that would love to add a stretch-4 like Hellems (career 36.1 3P%).

Hellems could decide to play professional ball, too. His skill set would fit nicely with a variety of European club teams.

Prior to this season, Hayes seemed like a program fixture. That could still be the case, especially with Breon Pass on the roster. However, that dynamic could be different, now. Hayes hasn’t started a game since the calendar flipped to 2022. Who knows, perhaps Hayes looks to transfer — even if Keatts is retained.

Ernest Ross and Jaylon Gibson are question marks as well. Ross is raw but dripping with potential. His role was limited this season. Unfortunately, as his play picked up, his season was cut short with an injury. Regardless, if Ross wanted to look elsewhere, he’d have plenty of suitors.

Smith would loom as the biggest possible wildcard, unless Seabron actually entertains the idea of returning for another season of college hoops. If Keatts is back for the 2022-23 season with Smith, then that’s something to sell to the fanbase: Keatts and a star player leading the program beyond the final grasp of Gottfried.

Keatts would also need to find some talent in the transfer portal. That’s another way to quickly reinvigorate a program. Wake Forest and Steve Forbes are a prime example of this new phenomenon.

There have been recent positive recruiting developments, too. Back in early December, NC State landed 2023 5-star point guard Robert Dillingham, although it’s unclear if Dillingham will play college basketball. He could easily opt for one of the new pathways to the pros.

(It would be sadly amazing if NC State didn’t get Dillingham for one season in Raleigh — given recent none-and-dones Jalen Lecque and Josh Hall.)

More recently, NC State has also gotten in on 4-star 2022 combo guard Judah Mintz. Wake Forest and Syracuse are after Mintz, a former Pittsburgh commit, as well. A Smith-Mintz backcourt next season would be pretty awesome. Of course, that development could also further pinch Hayes.

If NC State doesn’t land Mintz, the 2022 class — which currently has two 3-star signees — may seem a little underwhelming. There’s a lot of unfinished business here, though, including the transfer portal.


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